THE Wildlife Trusts say they are deeply concerned at the Wye’s status being downgraded to ‘unfavourable-declining’ by the UK Government’s advisor, Natural England. 

NE’s new assessment shows that the river, which flows for 155 miles from mid-Wales to the Severn estuary in England, has seen declines in Atlantic salmon, white-clawed crayfish and aquatic plants.

When it was last assessed in 2010 only one of its seven units was ‘favourable’ and the remainder were ‘unfavourable recovering’. But now the Wye’s condition is worse, alongside its tributary, the Lugg.

Concerns about nutrient pollution from intensive chicken units, with up to 24 million birds farmed in the catchment area, livestock farming and from sewage have escalated on both sides of the Welsh-English border, with phosphate and other pollutants fuelling algal blooms that turn the river into ‘pea soup’.

The first algal blooms of the year are already appearing in the river and the Wildlife Trusts say the new assessment means that without urgent help and appropriate management the river will never reach a favourable or recovering condition.

The trusts along the Wye are calling for:

  • Welsh and English Governments to place an immediate policy moratorium on any new or extended intensive livestock production units (poultry, cattle and pig) in the Wye catchment. This should include all applications that are currently under consideration in the planning system plus the sheds that have been approved but not yet built. A similar moratorium must be placed on the construction of any new Anaerobic Digestors, unless their outputs are nutrient neutral.
  • Natural Resources Wales, the Environment Agency and local authorities must publish all the water quality data and manure management information they hold – and then step up to enforce the law, ending the scandal of so-called ‘risk-based regulation’ (which effectively means self-regulation). A lack of resourcing for inspections has meant that some farmers and water companies have been able to pollute with impunity.
  • Regulators, supermarkets and farmers to work with local stakeholders and Wildlife Trusts to create a shared vision for halting farm pollution in the River Wye catchment, with clear goals for a healthy river where nature is restored and which can be enjoyed by the people who visit and live along it. Farmers in the catchment must be rewarded for providing public goods and enabled to diversify into regenerative and sustainable methods of production which cause less pollution.

Joan Edwards of The Wildlife Trusts said: “That the Wye is in even worse condition now will come as no surprise to the people that love and live near it. But this new admission represents a shocking failure by the agencies and authorities in Wales and England that are supposed to protect this once beautiful river.

“Wider research shows that farm pollution is the main cause of its decline – that’s why the authorities must enforce the law wherever the causes of pollution are clear. It’s time to prevent more chicken sheds from being built and ensure that all farmers are rewarded for nature-friendly, cleaner food production methods.”

If the condition of a designated site has declined, Natural England can help the landowner to take action, advising or requiring that certain management activities are carried out to improve the site’s status. But in the case of a river, many of the pressures are not within a river owner’s control – for example, pollution can come from anywhere in the catchment, so the ability to work only with the site owners is not sufficient to protect the river from harm.

Jamie Audsley, chief executive of Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, says:

Jamie Audsley, chief executive of Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, said: “Current approaches have failed to keep the River Wye in a healthy condition. What we now need to see is a cross government plan to bring the Wye back into a favourable condition.

"The Wye should be a river where salmon and otters thrive and people can safely swim. The plan will need to involve Governments, regulators, farm businesses and others, and ensure a consistent approach across England and Wales.”

The Wildlife Trusts are convening a Wye Catchment roundtable to ensure tangible action on 17th July when regulators and decision makers from both England and Wales will meet to discuss improving the health of the Wye.