An environmental group says it feels vindicated after a High Court judge agreed that farmers must obey rules intended to prevent pollution of the river Wye.

River Action mounted the case over what it said was a failure by the Environment Agency (EA) enforce so-called farming rules for water, specifically on the spreading of farm manure on fields in the river catchment which has been linked to its declining health.

It had wanted a full judicial review into whether the EA had failed in its statutory duty in this area – however Mr Justice Dove has now rejected this.


But River Action claims that its legal bid still served a purpose, by obliging the EA to improve its approach to enforcement in order to convince the court that it was indeed meeting its responsibility.

The judge said in his judgment handed down on May 24 that there had been “a conflict in the interpretation” of the farming rules between the EA and Defra, its parent body in government.

Thanks to the case, this “has been bought into the public domain for determination”, while the EA has now “revised and refined” its processes.

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River Action had argued that “excessive amounts” of chicken manure in particular spread on land within the protected Wye catchment have led to higher levels of phosphorus in the soil.

This then leaches into watercourses, causing widespread algal blooms along the river, turning it an opaque green. The severe consequences for its wildlife and vegetation could have been greatly reduced through better enforcement, the group argued.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) had attempted to show that farming in the area would not be viable if a tighter application of the rules were followed – which River Action sought to disprove including though the example of local farmer and agricultural consultant Ben Taylor-Davies.

Hereford Times: Ben Taylor-Davies' water-sensitive poultry farming was cited in courtBen Taylor-Davies' water-sensitive poultry farming was cited in court (Image: Friends of the River Wye)

On this the judge sided with River Action, saying the NFU’s evidence did not “demonstrate the kind of impracticality or absurdity which justifies the rejection of… this point”.

If complied with, stricter application of the rules would mean “current agricultural working practices would have to change”, he added.

River Action’s chairman and founder Charles Watson said: “Thanks to our claim, the EA has changed its approach to enforcing the farming rules for water.


“[But] we remain concerned that agricultural regulations are still being broken across the Wye catchment, and that the EA is still not being held accountable for its failure to enforce the law.”

He added: “We are taking immediate advice with regards to appealing the judgment.”

An NFU spokesperson said the union was “disappointed that the judge disagreed with the interpretation of the legislation put forward by the NFU and Defra”.

“The NFU will continue its work with government, local authorities and regulatory bodies to drive further improvements on water quality,” they added.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said it is “working to implement a more preventative, advice-led approach to monitoring and enforcement”.

“Anyone caught breaching environmental laws faces enforcement action, up to and including prosecution,” they said.