New action plan launched to protect the River Wye

The Farming Minister has announced a new plan to better protect and preserve the River Wye for future generations, including up to £35 million in funding and the appointment of a new ‘River Champion’ and taskforce.

The River Wye and its surrounding area is cherished by residents and visitors, however, the condition of the river is declining due to pressures including climate change, invasive species, and pollution from various sources, including from farms across the catchment area. The government is working at pace to intervene after 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.

The River Wye Action Plan sets out a range of measures to begin protecting the river immediately from pollution and establish long-term plans to restore it for future generations. This includes requiring large poultry farms to export manure away from areas where they would otherwise cause excess pollution and providing up to £35m in grant support for on-farm poultry manure combustors in the Wye Special Area of Conservation catchment to facilitate the export of poultry litter to where it is needed.

Combusting poultry manure provides a source of renewable energy and converts manure to a nutrient rich ash, which is a valuable fertiliser that is easier to transport and use on farms – reducing risk to the environment. Any new combustion units will need approval and we will work with local stakeholders and regulators to ensure robust assessments for protection of the environment and human health.

The Farming Minister has also appointed former Member of European Parliament, Anthea McIntyre CBE, as ‘River Champion’ in the Wye catchment. As a resident of the Wye Catchment and having represented the West Midlands Region as an MEP for eight years, Anthea will bring a deep understanding and appreciation for local issues – particularly in the water and agricultural sectors.

In this role, she will bring together key organisations and partners to protect and restore the Wye, including by supporting a long-term catchment plan. 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.

The River Wye Action Plan builds on significant measures already in place under our Plan for Water and farming schemes to help farmers speed up their transition to more sustainable agricultural practices.

Farming Minister, Mark Spencer, said, “The River Wye is facing real challenges, which is why the government is taking action to restore this important landscape and ensure it is better protected for future generations. Our plan will dramatically reduce the amount of nutrients entering the river, mostly by helping farmers transition to more sustainable practices. This will include providing up to £35m for on farm poultry litter combustors and trialling the use of emerging technology to help farmers share organic nutrients with their neighbours. I’m also pleased to announce the appointment of Anthea McIntyre, who as a local and a former West Midlands region MEP will spearhead government action on the ground to improve the health of the river.”

River Champion Anthea McIntyre CBE said, “I’m very honoured to be appointed as the River Wye Champion and look forward to working with all the committed partners in the Wye Catchment to improve the quality of our vitally important river. Having lived close to the River Wye since my teens, and represented this area over many years, I am determined to work collaboratively with all the interested parties to ensure the river is restored and protected for future generations.”

Offering an alternate view, Soil Association Campaign Advisor Cathy Cliff said, “We welcome the belated emphasis on reducing pollution in the Wye. However, while measures to move manure to different parts of the country will help to reduce pollution in the Wye, the sheer volume of manure being shifted is likely to lead to problems elsewhere.

“The most certain way to avoid river pollution would be to stop intensive poultry units producing such large volumes of manure in the first place. This would also help to protect the fragile ecosystems that are being destroyed in order to produce huge amounts of soya to feed unnaturally fast-growing chickens living in terrible conditions inside these units.

“We’re really pleased to see the support being provided to local farmers to implement better nutrient management and to move away from inorganic fertilisers and implement sustainable practices like riparian buffer strips. This is the kind of support we need to enable farmers to transition to more sustainable, high welfare farming, not technological fixes like that proposed by Defra that lock farmers into this damaging system.

“We also welcome Defra’s acknowledgement of the citizen scientists volunteering for Friends of the Wye – whose amazing and vital work highlighted the impact of the pollution on the river quality, aquatic life and local nature.”

Further actions outlined in Defra’s plan include:

  • Creating a level playing field for the export of poultry manure from intensive poultry farms with over 40,000 birds by reforming Environmental Permitting Regulations.
  • Proving the concept of a circular economy in manure nutrients with the potential added benefit of boosting rural renewable energy, through a carefully supported Pilot Farm Trial of Micro Anaerobic Digesters (AD).
  • Promoting soil and nutrient retention in local fields with new actions in the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) in Summer 2024, including No Till arable farming.
  • Providing £1.5 million of development funding to the local Wyescapes and Wye Valley – Ridge to River – Landscape Recovery Projects over the next two years (subject to the projects passing enrolment checks).
  • Providing funding for the Restoring our Rivers project and Arrow Valley Diversity Project, delivered with local partners in the next financial year.
  • Working with partners in academia, agriculture and the third sector (both in England and Wales) to produce new evidence on how farmers can mitigate pollution, including from legacy phosphate deeper in the soil structure.

The 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. Improved nutrient management will also deliver benefits for farmers, such as reducing reliance on inorganic fertilisers, a major input cost for farmers. We will continue to work closely with the community and partners in England and Wales to ensure we are taking the necessary steps to best protect the river.

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