Blog: Start with the Wye
Wye: the change
The River Wye – or Gwy in Welsh - is the UK’s fourth longest river, at 155 miles, and Wales’ second, flowing from Plynlimon to the Severn Estuary. The origin of its name is uncertain, but variations on wandering and wave are popular suggestions. Fitting, for this, by modern standards, wild and untamed river[i] with beaches, boulders, wide sweeping bends, riffles and pools.
The Wye is designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC), one of just nine in Wales and the longest. This designation was made in recognition of its importance for wildlife and is the highest form of protection a river can receive, with Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussel, white clawed crayfish and floating plantain being the most notable species and ranking it as one of the UK’s most significant rivers for wildlife. The river is also designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
The Wye has found a place in many people’s hearts, being cited as the birthplace of tourism with interest first being inspired by Gilpin’s Observations of the River Wye, spurring the UK’s first package tours and, since, it has remained a place to walk, canoe, fish, swim and wonder.
But, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it can be deceptive. Look below the surface ripples and you will start to see something rather ugly. The River Wye is far from being in good condition. You are now more likely to see the river in the news under headlines like “It’s Like Pea Soup” and “Crisis in the Water…”
We are one year in to the UN’s Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. And we are coming out of a pandemic where many people realised their connection to nature and the importance of spending time in the wild to their wellbeing.
We have been shown by the Dasgupta Report that “nature is a blind spot” in economics but that we can no longer afford for it to be absent from national finance accounting systems or by economic and political decision makers.
The UK hosts COP26 in November, where our politicians will make pledges to become global leaders in reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change.
In November, China will host the delayed COP15, or more correctly the Convention on Biological Diversity, billed as the biggest biodiversity conference in a decade. At this conference world leaders will pledge to restore nature and work to a target of managing 30% of the land and 30% of the sea for nature by 2030. Currently around 5% of the land in the UK is in good condition for nature.
This is all positive and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust welcomes this shift in focus and the increased energy and interest in tackling the tragic loss of nature we have been experiencing. And yet, right under our feet, on our patch, there is a very sad and sorry example of where we need action far more than words.
Wye: the problem?
The River Wye is in crisis and life in its waters is silently slipping away, with a slow loss of the beautiful water crowfoot, a pretty white aquatic flower, the death of fish and insects and the huge algal blooms that in long, hot, spells can turn the river green and stinking, as was seen in 2020.
You can’t see the phosphate that causes the algal blooms and the resultant loss of oxygen in the water, but we can all see, and often smell, what is creating it: chickens and eggs. Or rather, the manure that they produce.
Powys now has more than 150 Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs) housing an estimated 10 million chickens. This is industrial scale agriculture with factory-like production lines of 100,000 plus birds at each IPU site, making Powys Europe’s largest producer of free-range eggs. Birds are fed concentrated diets, often consisting of soya, much of which is from South America and grown on cleared rainforest.
Recent research by the universities of Lancaster and Leeds suggests that an extra 2,000 tonnes of phosphates a year are being tipped and spread via muck onto land in the Wye catchment area. This equates to 1.5 million tonnes of manure being spread within the catchment area, which exceeds what is required for crop growth by many times, every year.
As part of their manure management plans, farms located near a water course should be required to demonstrate how they will stop the run-off seeping into the river. But we can’t know how much run-off there is, because there is very little monitoring or inspection of the poultry units or their manure management plans by the statutory agencies responsible for monitoring and enforcing action on the River Wye – which, as we’ve established, has the highest level of protection as a SAC. Neither can we know exactly what the effect on our rivers is because the water quality is rarely tested.
Radnorshire Wildlife Trust is involved in a project recruiting citizen scientists to do their own monitoring of the water quality on the Wye, supporting the Friends of the Upper Wye and the Friends of the Lugg, in conjunction with Cardiff University. We plan to use this data to highlight the need for change, change from our government in Wales, from local authorities and their planning decisions and most of all from Natural Resources Wales, whose budget for monitoring, advice and support has slowly been slashed to historic lows. When reports of pollution or suspected pollution are made it can be weeks before anyone can visit the site and longer still to determine what, if any, outcome there has been. We know many people, both farmers and the agencies, want to do the right thing but there just isn’t enough support from the legislation or the budgets to actually deliver positive results for wildlife.
Natural Resources Wales (NRW) reported earlier this year that 60 percent of the River Wye and its catchment fails river quality targets. (Remember that the Wye is a Special Areas of Conservation!) NRW were quick to point out that this is because it has recently set more stringent targets. But targets are targets, and they were tightened for a reason.
Worryingly, NRW also says it has found no evidence of a link between the failing of water quality targets on the Wye and the expansion of IPUs. This statement has caused heartache and outrage from many quarters. RWT’s question is, did they look for such a link? If so, how, and where did they look and what did they find? The data is not forthcoming.
Wye: Radnorshire Wildlife Trust want change to happen from here?
When in good condition and the land around them is managed sympathetically for nature, rivers are the perfect way to achieve the Lawton Principles of bigger, better, more joined up, which have underpinned the Wildlife Trusts’ approach to conservation for the last 10 years. 30 by 30 (The Wildlife Trusts campaign and appeal to deliver the UN target) and the UK's adoption of the UN target will take this to the next level. Our rivers are linear corridors that connect meadows, wetlands and woodlands while supporting fish, insects, mammals and birds within their own waters.
And it’s not just wildlife that is restored and better connected. 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.
Wales is currently developing a new Agriculture Act, still at Bill stage. This Act, if executed properly, can ensure that nature is properly protected, resourced and monitored and that farmers and land managers are properly rewarded for managing their land for public benefits such as clean air, clean water, improved biodiversity and good access. In turn this will help ensure our rural communities thrive.
What does Radnorshire Wildlife Trust Want?
- The Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) for the whole of Wales needs to be fully implemented. A voluntary approach to bringing farm infrastructure up to the standards required by legislation and regulation has been ineffective. Assistance in reducing farm run-off through funding for slurry pits and preventative measures should only be made available if the land and business is already compliant with the NVZ regulations.
- For NRW’s budget for monitoring and enforcement to be restored to its 2013 level as a minimum (a doubling of the 2020 figure) with immediate effect and then increased over the next 5 years as the new Sustainable Farm Scheme is developed.
- For the Interim Office for Environmental Protection to be given the powers and funding to better monitor the Habitat Regulations and ensure proper monitoring and mitigation of any habitat assessments carried out under the regulations - to include agricultural planning conditions.
- For a catchment-based approach to be adopted, through the Agriculture Act, for the Wye – and all Welsh Rivers – and properly funded, to include provision for the adoption and delivery of Nature Based Solutions such as wetland creation, an increased riparian buffer zone, agroforestry and floodplain meadow restoration.
- For specific targets for the restoration of nature in Wales to be adopted – 30% of the land and 30% of the Sea to be actively managed for nature by 2030 – and enshrined in emerging the Agriculture (Wales) Act.
- A Sustainable Farming Scheme for Wales that provides incentives for sustainable land management within a Farm Sustainability Plan that requires sustainable stocking levels, nutrient management planning and provides a new Farm Assurance Scheme and the provision of ecological advice.
What can you do?
- Write to Dr. Caroline Turner, Chief Executive, at Powys County Council and Cllr Heulwen Hulme, Portfolio Holder for the Environment, to request that Powys County Council declare an Ecological Emergency for Powys County Council so that the nature crisis and loss of biodiversity is given equal weighting to the climate crisis meaning all major decisions have to be taken with the restoration of nature as a criteria. This will increase budgets and change workplans for better action for nature.
- Think about what products you buy. The supply chain exerts huge power over farmers and land managers and can only sell what people will eat. Boycotting brands or foodstuffs has led to many positive changes over the last 30 years.
- Join Radnorshire Wildlife Trust or donate today
- Sign up to Radnorshire Wildlife Trust’s eNewsletter for more wildlife related content and further updates on our call to Start with the Wye.