The Environment Agency (EA) is being taken to the High Court over claims it has failed to protect the River Wye from agricultural pollution.
River Action, an anti-pollution charity, said the EA is allowing destructive levels of nutrients from organic manure to enter the river and has applied for a judicial review against the agency.
It is estimated that about 20 million chickens are raised in the Wye catchment at any one time, about 25% of UK poultry production.
A large amount of organic manure has been spread over the land to facilitate the industry’s rapid growth in the region, which has led to a substantial increase in levels of phosphorus in the soil.
When washed into the river by rainwater, the phosphorus causes prolonged algal blooms which suffocate plants and wildlife by sucking up all the oxygen and turning the water an opaque green.
River Action said that despite the Wye being designated a Special Area of Conservation, algal blooms have destroyed 90% of the river’s ranunculus, a family of aquatic plants.
In June 2020, an unprecedented algal bloom stretched for more than 140 miles, almost the entire length of the river, it said.
A study by Lancaster University published in May 2022 found 60-70% of the river’s phosphorus now comes from agriculture and 3,000 tonnes of it are entering the river every year, accumulating at a rate of 17kg per hectare when the national average is 7kg per hectare.
Charles Watson, chairman and founder of River Action, said: “The severe ecological collapse of the iconic River Wye is one of the great environmental scandals of our times.
“The sickening tragedy is that this could have been seriously mitigated had the EA enforced existing environmental regulations to prevent the excess application of animal waste on land that was already oversaturated with nutrients.
“The irony is that the same Government that introduced these regulations is giving the EA explicit guidance not to enforce them. This unlawful conduct of the EA has to stop now.”
Statutory guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), states land managers should avoid spreading manure during a crop rotation that raises phosphorus in soil above a certain level unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so or they have taken all appropriate precautions to prevent any diffuse agricultural pollution.
River Action said that because crop rotations take place over several years, this approach fails to protect the river and it has accused the EA of “slavishly” following the guidance at the expense of enforcing rules designed to protect the river.
It said the EA is failing to apply the Farming Rules for Water, which prohibit applications of “organic manure or manufactured fertiliser” to farmland in a way that would raise nutrient levels above what is “needed by the crop and the soil”.
The charity also believes the EA is in breach of the habitat regulations by not applying rules to fulfil its requirements.
A spokesperson from the EA said: “We are working hard to restore the health and ecological status of the River Wye – including through increased monitoring and increased farm visits focusing on high-risk locations and previously non-compliant businesses.
“Last year we received extra funding to undertake more inspections, and nationwide since April 1 2021 we have visited nearly 5,000 farms and required over 7,700 actions from farmers to address agricultural pollution.
“The Farming Rules for Water are one of a number of regulations we use as part of our advice-led regulatory approach with farmers, to protect water quality and nature. If we find pollution or significant risk of pollution occurring we will not hesitate to take further action – evidenced by the enforcement action taken against 140 farms this financial year.”
Ricardo Gama, an environment solicitor who is representing River Action through the firm Leigh Day, said: “The Farming Rules for Water were introduced in 2018 specifically to deal with the issue of agricultural pollution in rivers like the Wye.
“But from documents we’ve seen, it’s clear that the EA is choosing to apply the rules in a way that is inconsistent with their own interpretation of how the rules are supposed to work.
“This means that manure – essentially an industrial waste product from meat and dairy production – is allowed to flow into our waterways with impunity.
“Our client hopes this claim will force the EA to reassess their approach and start applying the rules properly.”