Countryside charities in Wales and England have questioned the role of water regulators on both sides of the border.
CPRW; The Welsh Countryside Charity, CPRE; The English Countryside Charity, and UK rivers charity, River Action, say that there are many questions for water and environment regulators, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) and the English Environment Agency (EA) to answer about our rivers.
There have been countless stories recently about the dire state of rivers in England and Wales from water companies pumping untreated sewage into rivers. But in rural areas, industrialised farm factories have a large part to play in the severe decline in fresh-water ecology – which will affect our precious rivers for generations.
CPRW have repeatedly called for action from NRW, Local Authority Planning departments and the Welsh Government to take action to prevent the cumulative environmental impact of huge Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs).
Dr Christine Hugh-Jones from CPRW says that NRW have been assessing IPU planning applications with outdated set of guidelines.
“Until very recently, NRW were effectively measuring IPU applications on a set of guidelines, ignoring known phosphate risks. These should not have been used for several years. Now that the Welsh Government plans to reduced nitrate-spreading allowances below those spelt out in past planning permissions, many intensive poultry farmers will not have enough land for their manure.” said Hugh-Jones.
“CPRW hopes the Welsh Minister will consider introducing legal phosphate limits, too” she added.
What hope for our Welsh Rivers?
In the recent BBC Paul Whitehouse series, ‘Our Troubled Waters’, Sharon Hammond, county Chair of NFU Cymru for Brecon and Radnor, and operator of a 120,000 chicken IPU contracted with Avara, on the river Ithon told Paul Whitehouse “Anything we apply to the ground is not allowed to be less than three meters from the river…” She showed Paul the demarcation of where they had been spreading the phosphate-rich slurry. Paul remarked ‘You see, that seems quite close to me…’. The trouble is, it is far too close. The Welsh Government regulations say no spreading should take place within TEN meters of a water-course.
Dr Hugh-Jones asks what hope is there for our rivers?
“If Natural Resources Wales are expecting farms to self-regulate but even their leaders don’t know what the regulations are, what hope is there for our rivers!?
“If NRW don’t have the capacity to regularly inspect farms and enforce regulations properly, then what is the point of having them in this role? Are they getting the right support from the Welsh Government? added Hugh-Jones.
In England the Environment Agency has also been stretched too thin and is under resourced in both qualified people and funding, says Andrew McRobb of CPRE Herefordshire.
“In talking with EA operatives, they have told us that pay rates are so low they cannot retain or recruit enough staff. Whilst the will of current staff is evident, the ability to deliver meaningful environmental protection is lacking.
“The English Farming Rules for Water are not being enforced and as a result we continue to add 3,000 tonnes of phosphate within Herefordshire in excess of crop needs every single year. This is a catastrophe that must stop if we stand any chance of improving water quality within our catchment.
“In theory the EA has many powers including prosecution and civil sanction but neither of these have been effectively used in the catchment during the last 10 years. A policy of voluntary action and encouragement has not stemmed the tide of nutrient pollution.
“In Scotland on the river Ayr the EA equivalent has been successful in getting farmers from 34% compliant with regulations to 99% compliant by monthly inspections. This would be a good starting point for the Wye Catchment. Resources are once again cited as why this cannot happen but why not seek outside help to provide volunteer inspectors on a trial basis for a small catchment? Too often we are told why actions cannot take place but there is no focus on what could be possible.
Sea change is necessary if we stand any chance of saving the catchment from a eutrophication tipping point.”
Charles Watson, Founder & Chair at River Action, says that the regulators have been asleep at the wheel.
“When the eventual public enquiry into the pollution of one of Britain’s most iconic rivers takes place, the industrial scale dumping of manure across the Wye Catchment by the intensive livestock industry will clearly be cited as the prime cause of this magnificent river’s tragic decline. However, the prime conclusion of any such exercise will be the scandal of how this was ever allowed to happen in the first place.
“Our environmental regulators on both sides of the border have basically been asleep at the wheel’s as one of Europe’s largest single concentrations of intensive poultry production has been allowed to be assembled in a highly “protected” river catchment over such an incredibly short period of time. Both NRW and the EA have serious questions to answer”, said Watson.
Of course, the Wye runs from its Welsh headwaters into England then back into Wales with its catchment area under two different national regimes. CPRW volunteers working together with Dr Alison Caffyn in Herefordshire have produced a new, interactive Wye catchment poultry map illustrating the sheer number and densities of IPUs. All of these received Local Planning Authority approval following advice from our national environment protection agencies. Did none of these statutory organisations do any sums? With nearly 25 million chickens within the catchment area, is there any hope for the Wye?