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  • by Karma Loveday

River Wye Action Plan welcomed – but criticised for lacking urgency

Defra has issued an Action Plan for the River Wye, including £35m of funding and the appointment of a new ‘River Champion’ and taskforce.

The Wye is declining under the pressure of agricultural pollution chiefly, but also other types of pollution, climate change and invasive species. The condition of the River Wye Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which covers the stretch of the river in England, was downgraded to ‘Unfavourable – Declining’ last year.

Features of the Action Plan included: 

  • The appointment of Wye resident and former Member of the European Parliament, Anthea McIntyre CBE, as ‘River Champion’ for the catchment. In this role, she will aim to bring stakeholders together to agree a long-term catchment plan. Defra said this will involve “working alongside the local Catchment Partnership and citizen scientists, who have already made great progress in bringing together farmers and other land managers around a long-term plan to restore the river”.

  • Requiring large poultry farms to export manure away from areas where they would otherwise cause excess pollution.

  • Providing up to £35m in grant support for on-farm poultry manure combustors in the Wye SAC catchment, to convert manure to a nutrient rich ash, which can be sold as a fertiliser.  

  • Promoting soil and nutrient retention in local fields with new actions in the Sustainable Farming Incentive in Summer 2024, including No Till arable farming.

Defra acknowledged the extensive contribution of Wye activists, commenting: “The excellent work of citizen scientists has helped the government better understand the challenges the river is facing, and this Plan aims to build on their efforts to prevent and reverse damage.”

Responding, chair of River Action Charles Watson, which was originally founded to campaign for Wye protection, said: “The announcement of Defra’s long-overdue Wye Action plan, has to be welcomed in part. In particular, there is finally a clear acknowledgment of the causes responsible for the ecological collapse of the river and the role played by intensive agricultural and the poultry industry specifically…

“However, our major disappointment is that while we were promised a year ago by the secretary of state for Defra an ‘action plan’ to save the Wye, we have instead been given today just an undertaking for ‘the development of a 5-10 year Catchment Plan’ and that other proposed actions are similarly vague and lack definitive timelines…

“There is also a thundering silence on critically important actions such as banning new intensive livestock production units and reducing the permitting thresholds for poultry units to ensure the widely polluting free range egg producers are brought into the permitting regime. The absence also of any new funding for the regulatory agencies – or commitment to be tougher on non-compliance means that the current ineffective advisory approach to regulation remains unchanged.

“There is therefore a really disappointing lack of urgency in today’s announcement and given the failure of the existing Wye Nutrient Management Board over many years to fulfil its promise to develop a similar set of promises around implementing an effective Catchment Plan, I can’t help feeling that we have been here before.”


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