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New government action plan to restore River Wye does not go far enough for Wildlife Trusts

The view looking north down the River Wye towards Goodrich from the viewpoint on Symonds Yat Rock, Herefordshire UK

ON FRIDAY, (12 April), the UK Government has announced a long-awaited action plan for the River Wye. The River Wye Action Plan aims to “stop the decline of the River Wye, preserving its diverse and varied character, while supporting progress towards our environmental targets.”
While The Wildlife Trusts welcome the plan, they say it does not go far enough towards restoring the river to its full health.

Rachel Sharp, Director of Wildlife Trusts Wales, says, “We have been waiting years for action, and communities are fed up. Every summer, people face being unable to swim in the Wye due to algal blooms known as pea soups, which are caused by phosphate run-off from farms. Although the Plan is welcome, it does not appear to have all the ingredients to restore the Wye to what it once was. The Wildlife Trusts want to work with more farmers on nature-based solutions to reduce pollution and improve water quality. As the river forms the border between England and Wales, coordinated action is needed.”

Ali Morse, water policy manager for The Wildlife Trusts, says,“This plan is welcome but it does not go nearly far enough to clean up the debilitating pollution problem of this much-loved river. For years, there has been too much nutrient pollution from animal poo flowing into the Wye, and a distinct lack of enforcement by agencies to stop polluters making a bad situation worse. The new plan’s focus to ensure that the Wye does not continue to decline is important but helping it to then recover is an altogether bigger job.

“There must be a joined-up approach across England and Wales to address farm waste and nature recovery, and that collaboration needs to happen now. The Wye offers an opportunity to test approaches that can help other nutrient-polluted waterbodies across the country, so it is a river catchment that many will watch closely.”

At a roundtable held in Hay on Wye last summer, hosted by The Wildlife Trusts, stakeholders from across the catchment agreed that the minimum ambition should be to first stop the state of the river getting any worse. The Government’s plan sets out necessary steps to achieve this, but it has not provided a complete solution that will then bring the river back to health.

The Plan includes many elements called for by The Wildlife Trusts, including a politically-backed Taskforce, and a range of activity to reduce phosphate pollution. To build from these proposals, the Taskforce must set explicit and ambitious goals towards which all parties can contribute, and against which its progress will be judged. The Catchment Plan that follows will be where much detail will be set out – this must be collaboratively developed, and should focus on restoring this once-mighty river to its former thriving state, with high water quality, a healthy salmon population and a sustainably managed catchment.

Jamie Audsley, chief executive of Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, says, “Herefordshire Wildlife Trust is proud to play a key role in the river’s recovery by working with the farming community to ensure sustainable land use through practical projects set out in the Plan. But make no mistake, we need to go further than what’s described here to restore the river to full health and create a flourishing ecosystem that local communities can be proud of.

“There must be more support for farmers who want to move away from intensive production, and a well-resourced regulator that can take action against those who continually flout the rules. We also want to see a catchment nutrient budget that guides action by the farming sector, water companies and others to eliminate excess nutrients and the harm this has caused to the River Wye.”

The River Wye and surrounding catchment have long suffered from the impacts of pollution, including from intensive agriculture. Last year, the river’s official status was downgraded to ‘unfavourable declining’ by the Government’s advisor, Natural England.

In 2023, The Wildlife Trusts called for Welsh and English Governments to place an immediate policy moratorium on any new or extended intensive livestock production units (poultry, cattle and pig) in the Wye catchment. They also urged Natural Resources Wales, the Environment Agency and local authorities to publish all water quality data and manure management information they hold, and encouraged regulators, supermarkets and farmers to work with local stakeholders and Wildlife Trusts to create a shared vision for halting farm pollution in the river catchment.