Taking The Initiative

Monday 8th November, 2021

In August we reported on our work with a group of Herefordshire farmers to reduce the impact of agriculture on the health of the river Wye.

Hosted by Kate Speke-Adams, the Foundation’s Head of Landuse, this meeting was also attended by representatives from the Environment Agency and experts from Lancaster University, both of whose modelling has concluded that the river’s phosphorus inputs (the cause of the severe algal blooms) are approximately 70% of agricultural origin. The consensus of the group was that the industry needed to take its share of the responsibility for the current state of the river, to be proactive and to make significant changes to reduce agriculture’s impact.

This consensus was further demonstrated at this October’s Wye Nutrient Management Board meeting when John Reed, the Agriculture Director at Avara Foods and an active member of the Herefordshire group, confirmed that the company was “accepting a level of responsibility……. We are part of the issue and will be part of the solution.”

This is very welcome news for the Wye. An acceptance by those contributing to a problem that they are part of it is a vital step forward. It allows us and others to spend more of our effort and resources on delivering the measures urgently needed to restore the river’s health.

This group of Herefordshire farmers and businesses deserve credit for taking the bull by the horns and showing that agriculture does not have to be damaging to rivers or to the wider environment.

The group have identified several changes in farming practices that could reduce the amount nutrients entering the river. Since then, Kate has been busy moving these forward.

One of these was a plea by the farmers to the Environment Agency to enforce existing regulations effectively. Cracking down on bad farming practice is something that the Foundation, other environmental organisations and campaign groups have been demanding from the regulators on both side of the border for some years. Having an agricultural group call for it is different though – what sounds like a turkey voting for Christmas will get attention. Given the seriousness of the situation for the river’s ecology and the local economy, the concern of these Herefordshire farmers is that their efforts to reduce agricultural impact would come to nothing if the regulator allowed a few bad apples to remain in the barrel.

Thanks to support from Jesse Norman and other local MPs, a proposal by the Environment Agency for additional resource initially refused by Defra was restored. It promises 1,100 farm visits over the next two years to enforce basic rules for water in Herefordshire. However, this may still not have the required impact if the Agency take or are forced to take a weak regulatory position by the basic rules’ lack of legal bite. Inspection rates may increase through more boots on the ground but there is also a need to process breaches quickly and to impose penalties. Otherwise, the efforts of those who want to do the right thing might come to nothing.

The group have pleaded for more Environment Agency boots on the ground to enforce existing regulations more effectively.

Lancaster University research has concluded that the Wye catchment’s soils are receiving an excess of over 2,000 tonnes of phosphorus every year. Research has also indicated that the sandy and silty loam soils of the Wye have a lower capacity to hold phosphorus than other soil types, meaning we face a greater challenge than other parts of the UK. Nutrients applied to these soils are at high risk of leaching and ending up in the river. Making this situation worse is climate change – as our soils warm their phosphorus holding capacity reduces further.

The farms that supply Avara Foods produce 150,000 tonnes of poultry manure per year (which contains at least 3,000 tonnes of phosphorus). At the second meeting of the farmer group in October, John Reed reconfirmed Avara’s commitment and outlined their plans to remove the phosphorus in the poultry manure of their supply chain within two to three years. Significant new infrastructure and logistics will need to be established to enable this.

Another excellent output from the group has been an initiative being developed with Gamber Logistics, who buy and sell poultry manure and Cobb Agri, who advise on nutrient use and crop need. With our support they are developing a compliance scheme that will reduce the risk of over application of manure and better enable the Environment Agency to keep track of how much is being spread and where.

The sandy and silty loams of the Wye catchment have a lower capacity to hold phosphorus than other soil types. This capacity is likely to be reduced further by climate change.

These measures will reduce the amount of phosphorus being applied to land but they will not on their own solve the water quality issues affecting the Wye. Other initiatives will also be needed to reduce the phosphorus that has built up in the catchment after decades of over-application. Only a small proportion of phosphorous in soils is available for use by crops, the rest is known as “legacy” phosphorus. This usually enters rivers attached to soil particles but an ever increasing proportion is leaching from the soils and discharging though land drainage.

One of the actions the Herefordshire farmer group will be taking over the coming year is to set up field trials on certain areas of their land to see if it is possible for plants to access and thereby reduce this legacy phosphorus. Such trials will increase our understanding of this complex issue and will help farmers to make land and crop management decisions in the future that benefit them and at the same time, the river.

Wye algal blooms are going to take time to resolve, especially as phosphorus levels in many Welsh soils are continuing to increase.

While these moves are very welcome, the excessive phosphorus levels and algal blooms in the river Wye will still take time to resolve, not least as phosphorus levels in many Welsh soils are continuing to increase. Unfortunately, this means that the poor conditions that are affecting anglers’ catches and the Wye’s ecology could be with us for a while yet.

The widely-reported loss of the ranunculus in the main stem of the Wye has also removed a natural check on the algal blooms. The plant was not only great fish habitat, it also hosted an army of filter-feeding invertebrates that consumed algae as it passed through the weed beds.

The algal blooms used to be much less severe and tended to happen in the spring, before the ranunculus had grown. The loss of this plant could be why the blooms are now extending into August and occurring whenever flows drop off in the summer. It is not just the river ecology that is suffering – this is having serious effects on the fisheries and economy of the lower Wye.

The loss of the Wye’s ranunculus means that the river’s natural algae filter has disappeared. 

Recent campaigns and media attention has certainly helped to focus minds on the Wye’s problems. But it also has to be remembered that it has taken decades to get to this stage. There have been frequent warnings to regulators and Government about the increasing build-up of nutrients in river catchments, even a complaint to the European Commission in 2018 from our late founder, Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith OBE (via Afonydd Cymru) over Welsh Government’s performance in agricultural pollution. Yet despite all this and the fact that healthy rivers benefit everyone, we still face inertia and silence in some quarters (although perhaps no longer denial) where initiative is desperately needed instead.

In the meantime, this group of Herefordshire farmers and businesses deserve much credit for taking the bull by the horns and showing the rest of the industry that agriculture does not have to be damaging to rivers or to the wider environment. Their actions will make a difference but they will need to be adopted more widely across the Wye catchment if the river is to return to health.

Title image & additional photography: Adam Fisher, Angling Dreams

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