Activists unveil River Wye action plan to counter Government’s ‘vague’ proposals

A coalition of local environmental groups have put forward their own River Wye action plan as they criticised the Government’s “vague” proposals to tackle its pollution and nature loss.

The river, which spans 130 miles from central Wales to the Severn Estuary in south-west England, was downgraded by Natural England to “unfavourable” for wildlife in 2023 after years of exposure to agricultural pollution and phosphates.

Local groups Save The Wye, Friends of the River Wye, CPRE Herefordshire and Wye Salmon Association unveiled a series of actions to restore the river to health at the Hay Festival on Thursday.

The activists, who are backed by Herefordshire Wildlife Trust and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, argued that the Government’s new River Wye Action Plan “falls far short” of what is needed to address its decline.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) published its plan last month but critics said it lacked scope and ambition and was written without much consultation with local groups or experts.

The local coalition said Defra’s plan primarily applies to England, not Wales, and is largely a list of actions already being taken, including measures like payments for river buffers that apply England-wide under the new Sustainable Farming Scheme.

Instead, the activists’ manifesto calls on the UK and Welsh Governments to establish a single, cross-border approach to tackling the pollution crisis across the Wye catchment.

Other recommendations include enforcement action against polluters, financial support for farmers to transition to river-friendly farming, and action to empower consumers with honest labelling.

The groups also reiterated calls for the establishment of a water protection zone – a status that gives regulators the power to monitor and control potentially polluting substances brought into the catchment for industrial or commercial purposes.

Dave Throup, a former Environment Agency area manager, said the water protection zone proposal was first taken to Defra a decade ago and is “the only answer” to restoring the river.

“There’s been 10 years and millions spent on pursuing all existing voluntary measures, incentives and attempting to apply ineffective and inadequate legislation. They haven’t and won’t work,” he said.

Herefordshire Council also wrote to the Government in 2022 to request a water protection zone for the Wye.

In recent years, the river has lost much of its water crowfoot, a plant that used to carpet the river providing habitat and food for other species.

It has also seen an increase in algal blooms – photosynthetic organisms that produce toxic effects on wildlife and human health when they grow out of control.

David Gillam, from Save The Wye, said: “The Government’s Action Plan is really an Inaction Plan.

“It falls far short of what is required to stop the pollution of the River Wye, let alone restore it to health.”

Christine Hugh-Jones, from Friends of the River Wye, said: “We’re calling for Defra to work with the Welsh Government to tackle the pollution on the Wye.

“This will require radical cross-border action to enforce the law against polluters, reduce animal numbers in the catchment and reduce the amount of fertiliser applied to land.”

Charles Watson, chairman and founder of River Action, said: “Defra’s much promised and long-awaited Wye Action Plan has turned out to be little more than a vague plan to come up with a plan.

“Its universal condemnation by all the local environmental and community groups who are on the front line of this environmental disaster says everything that needs to be said.

“We urge Defra to study today’s Manifesto for the Wye – and then get back to the drawing board.”

The manifesto can be read here:

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “Improving water quality on the Wye and across all our Special Areas of Conservation rivers is a priority for us and we will continue to drive this work forward through Ministerially-led summits.

“We welcome cross-border working and Welsh Ministers continue to raise the importance of working together and continued engagement with the UK Government.”

A UK Government spokesperson said: “The River Wye is facing real challenges which is why we are taking action to restore the river and ensure it is better protected for future generations through our River Wye Action Plan.

“Our plan sets out clear actions which will dramatically reduce the amount of nutrients entering the river by helping farmers transition to more sustainable practices. This includes amending regulations for permitted farmers to only apply poultry manure where it doesn’t create a surplus, limiting pollution into the river. We are also providing up to £35 million in grant funding to improve the management of poultry manure.

“We have also appointed a River Champion for the Wye who will work with local partners to spearhead action on the ground to improve the health of the river.”