Urgent action is needed now to save the iconic river Wye, says Katie Harris in the first of a three-part series investigating the challenges it is facing

THE Wye is perhaps the UK’s most picturesque river, snaking 155 miles from its source in mid-Wales to the Bristol Channel.

Many stretches are designated areas of outstanding natural beauty. Unfortunately, over the past two years, the intensive poultry industry’s mega farms, and the routine discharge of raw sewage, have transformed the Wye’s clear waters, aquatic plants and pristine pebbles into a suffocating greeny-brown slime.

Hereford Times: Kingfisher by Nigel Williams

Even the big poultry producers now accept that intensive agriculture is contributing significantly to the Wye’s pollution.

Radical action is needed to save this iconic river. Farmers should be incentivised to diversify from industrialised mega poultry farming and enforcement agencies need more funding to protect the river.

During the past five to six years, the number of chickens in intensive poultry farms in the Wye valley has soared from about seven million to 20 million to meet the public’s demand for cheap meat.

Each shed can hold up to 100,000 chickens or more. When they get taken away to be slaughtered and processed, they leave up to a metre of manure across the shed floor.

This waste is then spread in huge quantities as fertiliser over the fields bordering the Wye. It contains high levels of damaging phosphates that the soil cannot absorb and which washes into the Wye, suffocating the wildlife that relies on it.

This nitrate and phosphate pollution causes algal blooms that have become increasingly frequent and serious in recent years. They remove oxygen, block out sunlight, and choke wildlife and plants. Salmon, swans, kingfishers and otters are among the species that have suffered. Between 2016 and 2019 the number of salmon caught on the Wye fell from 1,665 to an estimated 350.

Even if the practice of spreading chicken manure over the Wye valley stopped today it is estimated it would take 15 years for the pollutants to be washed out of the system.

The routine discharge of raw sewage is also an issue. In 2020, Welsh Water recorded 104,000 sewage spills into Welsh rivers including the Wye.

Hereford Times: Charles Watson, chairman of environment group River Action

But there is still hope because of the passion of individuals and campaign groups who love the river.

Charles Watson, chairman of River Action, is among those highlighting the damage caused by intensive poultry farming. River Action is calling on the Government to double the funding of the Environment Agency so it can tackle the problem.

“It is a ticking bomb,” said Mr Watson. “It’s a tragedy. The river has about three or four years before it dies.”

One of the biggest poultry producers in the UK, Avara Foods, has now admitted it is partly responsible for the problem after revealing that up to 150,000 tonnes of manure is spread onto the land from its birds, which then drains into the Wye.

Local farmers also now accept they need to be part of the solution.

Martin Williams is an arable farmer at Fownhope, south of Hereford who has used manure from intensive poultry units to fertilise his land.

He said: “I have addressed this issue first by looking at solutions within my own industry instead of blaming others first. If we can get agriculture’s house in order, then natural pressure will be placed on the others involved.”

The Environment Agency says it is working hard to address the issue through action such as agricultural visits and working with Welsh Water to reduce phosphate pollution. But its ability to act has been severely hampered by its government funding being cut by nearly two thirds since 2010.

It is not just wildlife that will suffer if the Wye is allowed to die. Thousands of locals and visitors get huge mental and physical health benefits from spending time on and around the river. And many tourism businesses in idyllic locations like Symonds Yat need a healthy river for their survival.

The Friends of the Lower Wye community action group is calling on everyone who loves and cares for the river to join their campaign.

Hereford Times: Symonds Yat Rock by Alby Sebastian

The group’s practical action includes pulling up Himalayan balsam, an invasive species of weed that stifles native plants and grasses, and replanting water crowfoot in its place.

It also lobbies local authorities, MPs, Welsh Water and others and mobilises citizen scientists to do water quality testing to gather data on the overall quality of the river.

Community action like this can help to save the river, but it also needs to be backed up by government action and resources. And we all need to realise that the production of cheap meat comes at a huge environmental cost.

Mike Dunsby and Nick Day, of the Friends of the Lower Wye, said: “Together let’s get the Wye and surrounding land back to full health with the main aim to have a healthy living river that we can really enjoy being on and in.

"We want all life to thrive in and around the river and to make it a special place that people can enjoy and in which wildlife can flourish.”