#SaveTheWye is an umbrella campaign to support and build the network of organisations and individuals working to protect and restore the health of the River Wye and its tributaries, for the benefit of both wildlife and people.
I am helping build and launch the #SaveTheWye initiative with a diverse group of other concerned people and have posted this page as a stopgap while we piece together a more formal on-line presence.
The briefing below is one I wrote to outline the wonders of the Wye River System, describe the major threat of river pollution, explain the solutions and show that everyone can play a part in bringing our beautiful river waters back to life by presenting a list of actions you can take at the end.
Thanks for reading, Richard (7th November 2020).
The Nation's Favourite River - background briefing
The Wye rises in the mountains of mid-Wales on the slopes of Plynlimon and runs south for some 153 miles (246km), becoming part of the border between Wales and England before meeting the Severn Estuary near Chepstow. Along the way, it flows through or past Rhayader, Builth Wells, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Ross-on-Wye, Symonds Yat, Monmouth and Tintern.
“If you have never navigated the Wye, you have seen nothing,” so stated William Gilpin, painter and author of the first British travel guide 250 years ago. Ever since visitors have come to enjoy the magical and timeless beauty of the Wye - from Wordsworth and Turner to the producers of the Netflix hit series ‘Sex Education’ in which the Wye Valley is the unsung star.
Much of the lower Wye valley has been designated as the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and in 2010, members of the public voted the Wye as the ‘nation’s favourite river’ as part of the national Our Rivers campaign backed by WWF Cymru, RSPB, Angling Trust and the Salmon and Trout Association.[i]
Today the Wye continues to draw visitors from afar and is a principle reason why many people choose to live close by; it supports a thriving tourist economy but provides much more, not least ecosystem services - such as water regulation, carbon sequestration and many others, all of which are essential for human well-being - which are often overlooked and undervalued. The ‘natural capital’ of the Wye underpins the economy of the country that it flows through but its intrinsic value is priceless.
The Wye is usually considered as consisting of two distinct parts – the Upper Wye and the Lower Wye - which together comprise a linear ecosystem which acts as an important wildlife corridor, an essential migration route and a key breeding area for many important species.[ii] The underlying geology, soil types, river processes and flow, as well as the adjacent land use, all contribute to the Wye’s wonderful diversity of habitats and wildlife.
The Upper Wye descends rapidly from its source 680m up in the Cambrian mountains, flowing through moorland and rocky gullies, tumbling over coarse riverbeds and cutting into the bedrock. It passes through a u-shaped valley down to Nannerth where it enters a gorge. Around Llyswen, the river enters a broad, alluvial floodplain, which extends to and beyond Hay on Wye; this is where the river enters England and the Lower Wye begins.
The Lower Wye is distinctly different in character and where the river runs over the soft sandstones and red mudstones of Herefordshire, it meanders producing a gentler more rolling landscape. Around Symonds Yat, limestones and red sandstones meet rand here there are some substantial meanders and impressive river cliffs. For much of its course between Symonds Yat and Chepstow, the Wye Valley takes the form of a long, narrow gorge incised through the Lower Wye-Forest of Dean limestone plateau.
Some of the habitats and populations of plants and animals found along the river are of international importance and it is because of the Wye’s immense nature conservation value, and to protect the wildlife the river supports, that the entire length of the river has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Furthermore, the Wye and many of its tributaries are also designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the European Habitats Directive.
There is a stunning variety plant life inhabiting the Wye and adjacent areas. The upland reaches are dominated by bryophyte vegetation (mosses, liverworts and hornworts) whereas, and the lower reaches are characterized by extensive beds of water crowfoot which can be seen flowering in June and July, identifiable by white flowers with a yellow base to the petals and circular leaves which float on the water. Water crowfoots are aquatic members of the buttercup family (Ranunculus spp) and more than one species can be found in the Wye. These include the stream water crowfoot which is abundant in the lower reaches and the uncommon river water-crowfoot which occurs more locally. The Wye’s Ranunculus habitats are one of the key reasons for its SAC designation.[iii]
Another important feature of the Wye Valley are the adjacent woodlands. Much of the woodland which forms an almost unbroken chain stretching from Ross-on-Wye to Chepstow, is ancient woodland and therefore especially precious in ecological terms. Mature mixtures of oak, beech, ash, lime and many other tree species are augmented by an interesting range of ground flora and in spring there are spectacular displays of flowers with many woods carpeted with bluebells while in other wild daffodils can be found. The exceptional richness of vascular plants in broadleaved woodland has given Plantlife reason to include the Wye Valley as one of its Important Plant Areas.
The varied flora gives rise to an equally varied fauna ranging from mammals to rare beetles. Otters favour areas where there is clean water, abundant food, cover provided by bank-side vegetation and undisturbed areas of dense scrub suitable for breeding. The abundance of these features in the Wye and its tributaries meant that the otter population remained even during the lowest point of the UK decline, making the area one of the species’ UK strongholds.
Other mammals found along the Wye range from several deer species (fallow, roe, red and muntjac) to the diminutive dormouse. The Wye Valley is home to the biggest population of lesser horseshoe bats in the UK, totaling about 26% of the national population, as well as healthy populations of greater horseshoe bats, both species thriving on the mix of woodland, hedges and unimproved pasture. Work is going on to control Himalayan balsam and predatory mink to enhance the habitat available for water voles which have undergone one of the most serious declines of any wild mammal in Britain during the 20th century.
Interesting birds can be spotted the length of the Wye such as dipper, common sandpiper, grey and yellow wagtails, goosander and red breasted merganser. Sand martins make their nests in the earth banks where the river is actively eroding the soil, especially on the stretch of alluvial plain. The unmistakable azure and orange flash of a kingfisher in flight is a common sight along much of the Wye such that you can almost measure the river in kingfishers.
The Wye river system is home to a diversity of fish species including Atlantic salmon, trout, grayling, barbel, chub and big pike, many of which are of interest to anglers. Some populations – salmon twaite shar, bullhead and three different species of lamprey - are internationally significant and of high conservation importance.
While us humans tend to focus on the larger species, we should remember that the richness described above depends on a huge diversity of invertebrates. These include everything from iridescent damselflies to the five-spot ladybird, one of a number of specialist invertebrates associated with river shingles. The river system also supports several rare or scarce species including the mayfly, the freshwater pearl mussel and important populations of the native white clawed crayfish which is now a protected species.
Unfortunately, all is not well with the Wye and its tributaries. A range of environmental threats are degrading the river system including; habitat modification, siltation from agricultural practices, over-extraction of water for irrigation the expansion of invasive species - Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and giant hogweed – and different forms of pollution from both point (where a pollution event is traceable to one source) and diffuse sources (where the poor water quality of a river or a whole catchment but is not necessarily traceable to a single point). Of these, the most pressing and pervasive problem is the increase in the severity and duration of algal blooms making the “the Wye looks like French onion or pea soup at times.”[iv]
These algal blooms occur due to an excess of nutrients (particularly phosphorus and nitrogen) entering the watercourse causing increased algae growth. As more algae and plants grow, others die. The resulting dead organic matter the becomes food for bacteria that decompose it. With more food available, the bacteria increase in number and use up the dissolved oxygen in the water. This process, known as eutrophication, can kill aquatic insects and fish and these impacts then reverberate throughout the food web having knock on effects on everything from birds to otters, such that whole ecosystems may be permanently degraded. Intensive livestock rearing and inefficient storage and spreading of manures, slurries, digestate and other fertilisers are the main sources of this nutrient enrichment.
The Wye drains a catchment of 4136km2 and has the fourth largest flow of any river in England and Wales and what happens in the Upper Wye impacts the Lower Wye. The increase in nutrient pollution in the river system can, in large part, be attributed to the proliferation of free-range chicken farms in the upper catchment area in recent years – a response to the 2012 EU ban on the keeping of egg-laying hens in cages. 156 intensive poultry units (IPUs) have been approved by Powys Council alone in the last 5 years, with another 28 still to be determined. Since April 2017, Powys has received 5 times as many applications for IPUs as the rest of Wales.[v] These modern, multitiered units, which may house as many as 64,000 hens on one farm, are located close to the river and its tributaries. As well as producing millions of eggs per year for suppliers such as the Happy Egg Company to satisfy our national demand, they produce thousands of tons of waste.[vi]
Climate change which is exacerbating the ongoing biodiversity crisis globally (see 2019 UN report) is likely already impacting the Wye river system and is expected to make the algal bloom problem worse by raising temperatures and altering flows.[vii]
The shocking state of the Wye river system is not a unique case: data released by the Environment Agency in September 2020 shows that all English rivers have failed to meet quality tests for pollution due the scale of sewage discharges and agricultural and industrial chemicals entering the water system.[viii] This lamentable state of affairs underscores the need to take urgent action to save the Wye, in part because effective action will set a precedent for all the UK’s rivers.
Fortunately, while the issues outlined above need to be acted on urgently, the crisis in the Wye and its tributaries can be turned around by implementing a wide range of existing strategies and readily available actions and enforcing the relevant laws and regulations.
While intensive farming methods are the root cause of much of the deterioration of the Wye river system in recent years, it would be wrong to blame the entire farming community for the decline in river health and many actively want to help turn the situation around and prevent pollutants entering the river in the first place. The Wye and Usk Foundation and Herefordshire Wildlife Trust for example are working with farmers on various practices that can mitigate the problem. These include creating wetlands to reduce risk of runoff or drainage from a site entering a watercourse – a nature-based solution to the problem.
However, the most effective way of restoring the health of the Wye river system is for the responsible bodies to implement and enforce the various pollution, conservation and planning laws and regulations that already exist and have been designed and enacted precisely to protect the environment on which both people and wildlife depend.
There is a matrix of laws and regulations that relate to the Wye SAC, SSSIs, pollution levels and planning which if correctly applied would ensure that species and habitats that fall under the Habitats Regulations are protected, maintained or restored at ‘favourable conservation status’ and keep pollution levels within legal limits.
Herefordshire Council, Powys Council, Natural Resources Wales, Welsh Water, the Environment Agency and Natural England all have key roles to play and since 2014, all have been represented on the River Wye Special Area of Conservation Nutrient Management Plan Board which was set up to try and address these issues and improve the water quality.[ix] However, collectively they have as yet to do what is required of them.
Crucially Herefordshire Council and Powys Council have both failed to properly consider the cumulative impacts when granting multiple planning permissions for intensive agricultural units and this failure has elevated the nutrient inputs into the Wye river system.
The parlous state of the river is so bad that Wales Environment Link, (a network of leading Welsh environmental, countryside and heritage NGOs) has called on the Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and Powys Council to introduce a moratorium on all new intensive poultry units in Powys until
- peer-reviewed research has been undertaken on the cumulative environmental impacts of the currently operating units
- evidence is provided that negative impacts have been reduced
- effective measures are in place to manage these impacts in the future, including any necessary changes to the planning system and permitting thresholds
Furthermore, in Herefordshire, Natural England have enforced a moratorium on planning across the River Lugg sub-catchment due to the Wye’s elevated phosphate levels.
To get the urgent action required from the bodies charged with protecting the river is going to require effort from the full spectrum of stakeholders including NGOs, interest groups, businesses and individuals working collectively. #SaveTheWye has been created to facilitate the building of a network to accelerate that change.
Each one of us can make a difference:
- Share information (including this briefing) to help grow the network.
- Post your Wye photos on social media with the #SaveTheWye hashtag to show you want to protect the Wye and its tributaries. Add a line of text which says “I want to #SaveTheWye because….”
- Join the Wye and Usk Foundation and Herefordshire Wildlife Trust to help with their work to protect and restore the Wye and its tributaries.
- Sign the petition directed at Powys County Council calling on the Council to instate an immediate moratorium on planning permissions for new or extended poultry units in the county until the full environmental - and community - impacts of those we already have can be assessed and reduced.
- Support the legal challenge mounted by residents of the Golden Valley who believe that Herefordshire County Council (HCC) has acted unlawfully by granting approval for expansion at an industrial livestock farming unit at the mouth of the Golden Valley without conducting a proper impact assessment as it is required to do by the Habitats Regulations. By doing so Herefordshire Council did not take account of its own environmental policies as set out in its Core Strategy. In September 2020 a planning judge ruled that the Golden Valley Action Group’s central case against HCC is justified. He decided: ‘It is arguable that the defendant [HCC] erred by failing to take into account the cumulative effects of the proposed development, and thereby failed to consider whether the proposal was likely to have significant effects on the River Wye SAC and/or undertake an appropriate assessment’. This Judicial Review has national relevance: if successful it will ensure that planning decision makers in England and Wales cannot bypass the rules designed to protect sensitive natural systems from harm.
- Use your spending power to support local sustainable businesses.
- Write to your MP or Assembly Member, the Prime Minister and relevant Government Ministers. Whether issues are addressed or not is largely dependent on ‘political will’. Making your concerns known to the people who are meant to represent your views does move issues up the political agenda as their positions are dependent on people voting for them.
[ii] Cyngor Cefn Gwlad Cymru Countryside Council for Wales. Site of Special Scientific Interest Citation River Wye (Upper Wye)/ Afon Gwy (Gwy Uchaf) Powys, Ceredigion https://naturalresources.wales/media/663017/SSSI_1342_Citation_EN00132f4.pdf
[iv] Guardian (2020). ‘It's like pea soup’: poultry farms turn Wye into wildlife death trap. Robin McKie 20th june 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/20/its-like-pea-soup-poultry-farms-turn-wye-into-wildlife-death-trap
[v] Statistics collected by CPRW and via an FOI requested by Elgan Hearn, reporter at the Powys County Times
[vi] Sunday Times (2020). Free-range egg farms choking life out of the Wye. Jon Ungoed-Thomas 21st June 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/free-range-egg-farms-choking-life-out-of-the-wye-rt3c763qc
[vii] Environment Agency (2016). Climate change and eutrophication risk in English rivers. Report –SC140013/R https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/509304/Climate_change_and_eutrophication_risk_in_English_rivers_-_report.pdf
[viii] Guardian (2020). Shocking state of English rivers revealed as all of them fail pollution tests. Sandra Laville 17th September 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/sep/17/rivers-in-england-fail-pollution-tests-due-to-sewage-and-chemicals
[ix] River Wye Special Area of Conservation Nutrient Management Plan Board. Terms of Reference. https://powys.moderngov.co.uk/documents/s20792/nmp_board_draft_terms_of_reference%20031017.pdf