Wye…., oh Wye….!

Wye…., oh Wye….!

Helen Stace updates on the tragic state of the River Wye and the impact on our wildlife.


The River Wye should be a proud and joyous example of a healthy river, considering that it is a notified Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation, national and international designations intended to protect the highest quality rivers.  Sadly, that is not the case….


Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s Vision for Rivers

2020 marked a turning point in the widespread acceptance of our environmental emergency and climate crisis.  The declines have now reached such a catastrophic scale that their consequences are impacting on people and communities across the country - through pollution, flooding and poor living environments.  Against the odds, Britain has become one of the most nature depleted countries in the world and we, and our children, are being deprived of the contact with a healthy natural environment that is so essential for a long, healthy and happy life.

In our 2020 Vision launched last year, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust called for:

“Healthy naturally functioning rivers and floodplains - providing clean water, mitigating flooding and alive with wildlife”

The River Wye should be a proud and joyous example of a healthy river, considering that it is a notified Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC), national and international designations intended to protect the highest quality rivers.  Sadly, that is not the case….


An unprecedented disaster:  algal blooms smother the river

Events and scientific evidence revealed over the course of the last year have shown how the Wye has been transformed from Wordsworth’s "waters rolling from their mountain springs, with a soft inland murmur", to the Daily Mail’s  "putrid algae-ridden swamp".

Over the last 20 years there has been an increasing problem with algal blooms. In 2020, the algal bloom in the river started early, spreading down the river from Llanbister, turning the water into a thick pea soup and wiping out miles of river ecology.  Around 70 miles of river lost the beautiful beds of water buttercup (one of the protected features), river invertebrates and fish were impacted by the algae and the oxygen depletion it caused, and swan cygnets died of starvation due to lack of food in the water. 

Ecologists and anglers have long been aware of the decline of the river since it was first declared an SSSI, but the state of the river in 2020 drew the attention of swimmers, canoeists and the public.  A plethora of new local groups, such as 3WyesWomen, Save the Wye and Friends of the Upper Wye sprang up to try to protect the river and brought the fate of the river to national attention, with a feature on BBC Countryfile.  River Action, The Angling Trust and others have been launching national level petitions and calls to action.


So why the algal blooms? 

The key factor is the concentration of nutrients such as phosphates in the water.  These act as fertilisers for the algae, especially at times of higher temperature.  So, hot summers, with low flows in the river, warm the water, concentrate the nutrients and sunlight reaches right down to the riverbed, creating ideal conditions for the alga to bloom.  Changing weather patterns and rising temperatures are due to climate change, which we must tackle at a higher level.  But we can, and should, do something to address the levels of nutrient in the water, which is largely the result of waste!


Waste of the Wye:  Chickens!

You can’t see the phosphate in the water, but the smell betrays its source – chickens and their manure.  The chicken and egg production industry has a huge focus in the Marches, with intensive poultry units and egg production units springing up in Herefordshire, Radnorshire and Shropshire.  Current estimates suggest that there are up to 17 million chickens in the Wye catchment.

Birds ‘for the table’ are now produced in less than 40 days and each production cycle generates huge quantities of waste, largely chicken faeces.  This waste is being made available to farmers across the catchment and you cannot escape the sight, and smell, of heaps of manure waiting to be spread on the fields.

There is little control over how, where and when the manure is spread and result is that much of it finds its way in into the river - as a result of leakage from storage facilities and heaps, application to the land in inappropriate conditions and rainfall washing the manure and manure laden soil into the river.

For free range birds, mainly across the border in the upper catchment, there is the additional problem of chickens denuding grassland on steep sloping ground with the resultant mix of soil and chicken excrement readily washing down into the water.

Preliminary findings of the RePhokus study by the Universities of Lancaster and Leeds has estimated an excess loading of 2000 tonnes of phosphate per annum in the catchment. That is equivalent to 1.5 million tonnes of farmyard manure being spread, over and above the crop requirements every year. That is an incredibly high volume.  Even if all application of phosphate in fertilizers and manure materials stopped now there would be enough legacy phosphate to support crops for 20 years.


Waste of the Wye:  Humans

Added to the chicken problem, there is the issue of human sewage.  Figures available from the Environment Agency show the problems of overflows of untreated sewage from Combined Sewers at times of high rainfall.  There were 4,156 incidents of in the Wye catchment in 2020, operating for a total of 29,897 hours and 1,128 incidents in the Lugg catchment operating for 12,842 hours.  That is a combined total of 5,284 incidents with overflows for 42,739 hours across the whole catchment.  This is clearly adding to the problem!


Loopholes in the regulatory framework

How is this allowed to happen?  The sad fact is that there are massive loopholes in our regulatory framework.

Local Authorities are responsible for planning decisions in their areas and must produce strategies to direct their decisions.  In Herefordshire, the Core Strategy recognised that the levels of phosphate in the rivers were becoming a constraint to housing development and housing provision and the Core Strategy is contingent on delivery of the Nutrient Management Plan.  This plan outlines many actions designed to reduce the phosphate inputs to the rivers but has not been successful in bringing phosphate levels down.  As a result, no planning developments with be permitted in the Lugg catchment unless they can prove no increase in phosphate levels or betterment in phosphate levels. 

Intensive Agriculture Units, whether for broiler chickens, egg production or intensive pigs, require planning consent and must be subject to a Habitats Regulations Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessments.  The relevant Local Authority, as Competent Authority, is required to make decisions based on impacts both individually and cumulatively.  However, the planning system focuses on the built infrastructure on site, and it took many years of lobbying by environmentalists for the planners to also consider the cumulative offsite impacts of the waste arisings.  Applications now must be accompanied by a waste management plan, but as this is considered commercially sensitive information, we have not been able to evaluate the effectiveness of these plans.

Large agricultural sheds can be erected under the permitted development rights applied by the General Development Order and do not require planning consent.  They only require planning consents as above if they subsequently change use.  However, there is minimal monitoring of such developments post construction.

All intensive agriculture units require permits and license for the discharges to watercourses, but again this is focused on the designed infrastructure such as waste holding areas, yards, covered buildings etc and does not apply to the waste arisings once they have left the premises.

Farmers:  once in the hands of farmers, there is no firm legislation to cover storage and use of the waste, only the voluntary code in the Farming Rules for Water.  There is huge resistance from the farming lobbies for the introduction of firmer rules such as a Water Protection Zone.  We have the added complication of waste arisings crossing and recrossing the boundary with Wales, where a different set of regulatory rules apply.

The Statutory Agencies: here in Herefordshire, responsibility for protecting the rivers under various legislation rests with Natural England and the Environment Agency.  However, both agencies have had their budgets slashed by Defra. 

Natural England saw it budget drop from £265m in 2008 to only £85.6m in 2019/20.  In Herefordshire we noticed the effect this has had on the ground as the number of staff looking after our beautiful county and fragile wildlife has continued to diminish.  The SSSI units on the River Wye have not been monitored for their conservation condition since 2010 and at that time all features other than otters were judged to be unfavourable recovering – the ‘recovering’ being on the basis that the Nutrient Management Plan set out proposals for recovery.   Similarly, most units on the Lugg have not been assessed since 2010 or 2013, with the exception of the stretch at Kingsland impacted by the recent dredging work (see my blog ‘Murky waters’).

Meanwhile the Environment Agency had a total budget in 2019/2020 of just £0.32 million to inspect over 120,000 farms, equating to just 0.65 staff in each of the country’s 14 areas.  This makes inspections and enforcement of infringements difficult to pursue, at the time when the threats to the river are massively increasing.  The Environment Agency has documented only 243 violations of the Farming Rules for Water since they came into effect in 2018 but have not yet prosecuted any of them.

Budget cuts have also drastically reduced the monitoring of water quality, with the health of the River Lugg now monitored at just one point on the river.  Despite this, the decline in river health is evident, with figures released by the Environment Agency in September 2020 showing that a magnificent 0% of river, lakes and streams in England monitored are in good health.  Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is supporting the Friends of the Upper Wye with their citizen science project to increase monitoring of water quality on the river.


River of Life

The River Wye could be a river of life through the county, living up to the iconic status of its national reputation and bring multiple benefits for wildlife and people.  The river corridor should be restored to its former glory with floodplain meadows and woodland fringes protecting the river from pollution and supporting fish, insects, mammals and birds within their own waters.  Rivers are the perfect way to achieve the Lawton Principles of “more, bigger, better, better joined up” and contribute to national targets for 30% of land managed for nature by 2030.

Healthy rivers contain more oxygen, more life, and thus more carbon which is absolutely vital if we are to prevent global warming – restoring water quality in the Wye would be a Nature Based Solution for climate change.


Cleaning up our act!

The River Wye is now in a catastrophic state, and the regulatory framework needs a massive overhaul on multiple levels:

  • The regulatory framework requires a complete review to ensure that these loopholes are closed and there are seamless assessments of new developments, both built and agricultural, covering every aspect of their impacts, individually and cumulatively. 
  • This includes abandoning voluntary codes of practise around the agricultural use of fertilisers, including manures and waste arisings from IPUs, in favour of firm regulation for example under Water Protection Zones
  • Existing consents, including those for water companies, need to be reviewed to comply with more stringent standards
  • The Treasury needs to restore and enhance funding for the Statutory Agencies to ensure that they have the staff and resources to monitor, inspect and enforce the legislation
  • The Statutory Agencies need to have the political backing to take more prosecutions of those proven to be flaunting environmental regulations
  • The Interim Office for Environmental Protection must be given the powers and funding to monitor the environmental and ensure proper monitoring and mitigation of any habitat assessments carried out under the regulations.


What can you do!

Herefordshire Wildlife Trust Members and supporters can help!  Please:

  • Join the Herefordshire Trust to add your voice to the growing swell of concern
  • Amplify our voice on social media by sharing our posts
  • Sign relevant national petitions
  • Report any incidents you see on the River to the Environment Agency Action line 0800 807060, copying the information to Herefordshire Wildlife Trust.
  • Buy your eggs from local small scale producers and think about how often you eat chicken and where it comes from! (Visit the ‘Eating Better Alliance’ –recently joined by the Wildlife Trusts)