Passion for… A Cleaned Up Wye

John Bailey

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As we have written before, simply because the hot weather has receded that does not mean that all is well with the Wye, and that the protests over its horrendous treatment will subside. In fact, the opposite is happening. Our inbox is full of outraged mails on a daily basis, and two items have recently stood out.

One is a letter that has been widely circulated, from James Evans, Member of The Welsh Parliament for Brecon and Radnorshire. We have highlighted points from the letter that should interest us all…

“What was clear from Natural Resources Wales’s (NRW) report into phosphates was that further investigation was needed.” (How much investigation is still needed when so much work has already been done, and the visible evidence is incontrovertible?)

“Regarding the claims about poultry units being behind the pollution incidents along the Wye, I note NRW’s investigation found that the overall pattern of failures in the Wye did not support the argument that poultry units are the main reason for nutrient failures on the Wye.” (Does anyone with any knowledge of the present situation agree with this?)

“Welsh Conservatives believe that a holistic solution is needed to restore river beds, rather than adopting stringent phosphate targets.” (ie, another way of saying ‘we’ll kick the proverbial can along the road and do nothing’.)

“Welsh Conservatives feel that the failure to secure our long term food security will cost future generations dearly… which is why food self sufficiency should be prioritised.” (So, screw the environment and stuff the need for pure rivers. If supermarkets can sell chickens for a quid or two, everyone is happy in a collapsed world.)

The Wye & Usk Foundation recently called for a meeting of fifty Herefordshire farmers, and there seems to have been some acceptance of the poultry problem. Chair Kate Speke-Adams, WUF Head of Land Use, summed up the conclusions…
  • Research into technology to strip phosphates from manures.
  • No more phosphate applications to soils already reaching a critical threshold.
  • Investigation into supply chain schemes so that phosphates can can be exported from the (Wye) catchment to areas of the country whose soils are in deficit.
  • Expanding research to improve understanding of how our soils and nutrients are behaving.
WUF’s report ending by using phrases like this “takes time”, ”no quick, easy solution”, and “high levels of phosphorus will take decades to run down”.

And yet the report was written with a measure of bright optimism, a spin on events we fail to understand. Whilst we have a high regard for some in WUF, the basic argument of all this is that someone sometime will be paid by someone sometime to look into what is destroying our most iconic river… but we won’t do anything with much urgency because it’s probably too late anyway. Or perhaps it is more a case of ‘let’s be seen to be talking about this and with luck, the whole problem will go away’?

Just tell us please, are you happy with this? Because we are not, not by a long chalk. Can we all please decide on how we proceed from this point, and what action as a group we can all take to effect change NOW?
 

diawl bach

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Just tell us please, are you happy with this? Because we are not, not by a long chalk. Can we all please decide on how we proceed from this point, and what action as a group we can all take to effect change NOW?

Which group are you referring to, the Wye and Usk Foundation, the Angling Trust, the Wye Salmon Association, River Action or Thomas Turner?
 
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John Bailey

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The chicken manure

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The brook

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The heavily sprayed orchard

Hi “diawl bach", thank you for your thoughts indeed. You talk about WUF, AT, WSA, River Action, and even TT, who aren’t a pressure group at all but provide the wherewithal for all this to be discussed. What I have always hoped might happen is that frequent readers/members actually take the time to pressure MPs, the media, and the groups you mention, to push for positive change now, not some imaginary time in the future when more data has been compiled, and more senseless reports have been written. What I have wanted to get across is some sense of urgency, that we cannot sit about hoping that others will take up a cudgel... as it were!

What is happening to the Wye is happening at a river near you – I know this. I have come from East Anglia where things are even worse than here in the West. Above all, what is happening is clear to see everywhere, every day. Let me elaborate.

Yesterday, I relayed the backbone of Welsh MP James Evan’s letter on the Wye/phosphate levels. Then I went to his website and read his self profile... it makes for interesting reading...

“Brought up on the family farm, I have a passion for the outdoors, for agriculture, and protecting the valuable role the industry plays in our area. My years spent in the Young Farmers took me all round the constituency, building friendships and partnerships.”

Now, I/we are not castigating all farmers, many of whom appreciate the issues we are desperate to resolve, but it is apparent that there are many considerations that this MP puts ahead of the health of rivers. To keep an analogy going, this is rather like having a fox running the chicken coop. Is this man going to battle for a solution to the chicken waste problem, or let things ride for as long as he can? Is there any surprise his response to the Wye disaster is cooler than lukewarm?

Also yesterday, I went for a walk in the superficially dreamy Herefordshire countryside. Harvest is all but done and a tractor was ploughing a field, a traditional scene. But the birds wheeling behind the plough were missing, not a rook, seagull, crow or sparrow in sight. Later, I took a fork down to that field’s margins where I dug for minutes before finding a single worm.

This morning, I walked East. In a harvested field was a long barrow-type mound of chicken manure waiting to bring its phosphate-rich presence to bear on the soil. Moreover, the mound stood sixty yards from a brook that flows a mile to the Arrow which, of course, flows on into the Wye itself. Come the autumn rains, what does that farmer think will happen?

I have just been shown an orchard close to the village. The apple trees stretch in endless rows and you’d think it a fine scene 'till your attention is drawn to the bare strips of soil beneath those trees. The land here has been scorched by chemicals to make the harvesting of apples quicker, cheaper, more ruinous to the whole countryside around.

If we open our eyes, all of us, we see these abuses everywhere. As anglers, as a group of committed individuals, surely there must be things we can do?
 

John Bailey

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Moving on from the barbel comment earlier, can I say that 'diawl bach’s contribution is exactly the one I was hoping for? I have spent time looking at the Lyonshall planning application, and so should we all. The consultees are fascinating. What are Natural England, the EA, and various other ecological bodies making of this? I intend to find out. We all should do the same. How many are there reading these interchanges? Is it not incumbent on us all to make our fears felt?

Direct action is mentioned. Well. I am up for this. Who else believes it is time we were seen and heard, not simply hidden away?

I’m not finished with this. None of us should be. This is a ball we must keep rolling.
 

sedgy

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EARTHWORMS.
On intensively farmed land involving the spreading of liquid slurry have long gone -dead .The last time I saw seagulls visiting agriculture land in the search for worms was when they were spreading the stuff and all the worms were coming to the surface dyeing and this happening on each field about five times a year .

COMMERCIAL POLTRY FARMS -MID WALES.
Over the last four years, working for an electric distribution company ,we were providing a new electric connection on a weekly basis to such farms with huge ,£500k+, investment per farm and the intention of most was ,once established ,to build another similar sized unit. So if you think it is intensive now? You can at least double it!
I made a point of asking,in conversation….to most of the farmers ,”What’s happening to all the shite then?” …all would just casually say that they get rid of it on the land-as if it was of little concern.

WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT IT?
The million dollar question.I for one ,being a simple man who has enjoyed no more in life than playing in the river , am sick of hearing and witnessing the simple disrespectful destruction of our river’s. So what can we do about it? Not wait for the government bodies to “get it sorted “ that is for sure….as stated before ,they are simply NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE and I don’t think our concern is even on their agenda.
John I wish I had an answer, but as a simple fisherman I don’t.But we do have numbers if you want to build an army? But we need leadership and a plan of action?
I’m willing to protest from John O’Groats to Lands-end if that is what it takes or give a donation to an appointed FUNCTIONING body that can take this fight forward?
 

John Bailey

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The “treated" fields at sunrise... PS – not a feeding bird to be seen

I’ll address this direct to “diawl bach” as he seems to know more about the Marcher lands’ agriculture than I do, but this is intended for all, of course. Can you explain this, any of you?

Last night, Sunday 5th August, from around 10.00pm, there was a huge amount of farm traffic both on the lane and on the fields a quarter of a mile from the village. We fell asleep eventually, but it was certainly very busy (and noisy) 'till well after midnight.

Up early, we discovered that three, perhaps four fields had been spread with chicken manure, presumably from the “long barrow” mound of the stuff I discussed a couple of days back. This morning a couple of tractors were still on the scene, but I’d guess that 60 acres plus had been “treated” during the night. From the amount of manure, we could see (and smell) I’m not at all sure that more of it was not ferried in during the hours of darkness.

I can only repeat that a brook feeding the Arrow, and thence the Wye, runs for half a mile directly alongside these fields.

Why do this at night?

Are there no controls over this practice, especially so close to habitation?

Are farmers completely unaware that this practice leads to contamination of the whole Wye catchment area?

Where are the EA on this? What is NE’s stance?

Is direct action the only solution for any quick action?
 

sewinbasher

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This is a much wider issue than the Wye catchment although that is particularly badly affected, there have been several major pollution incidents on my local Clwyd catchment and also in SW Wales. We are opposing multiple new local planning applications for poultry units planning to dump slurry in riparian locations and it seems that the NRW responses are only concerned with newts and do not seem to even mention fish.

From similar lobbying of local MSs and MPs it has become clear that the Conservatives have aligned themselves with the farming lobby and will oppose attempts to tighten the rules on disposing of slurry. Hopefully they will soon realise that there are more anglers and water users than farmers.
 

JohnH

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Article on Page 10 of today's Times. Following communication by River Action last month, Avara Foods, a chicken supplier to Tesco and other retailers, has admitted that excrement from its farms is polluting the Wye. Avara has promised to stop the pollution after revealing up to 150,000 tons of manure annually is spread on land draining into the river. Avara said "...while not a direct contributor to River Wye pollution, we recognise that the use of our chicken litter (sic) on land in the catchment does have an impact". And went on to say it's confident new disposal methods being developed will have "...sufficient capacity to take all our chicken litter as an alternative to spreading on the land".

Sounds like progress, but I am sure JB will adopt the precautionary principle before saying this is unequivocal good news...
 

BobP

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The WUF report is correct in aspect at least. Phosporus is highly persistent. In a river situation it doesn't stay "free" in the water column but settles into the bottom sediments where it sits inert until the sediment is mobilised by boat passage for example in a canal, or by increased flows in a river such as the Wye. Then, aided by sunlight it does its thing and creates an algal bloom until the free P is used up and everything settles down again until the next event. The more P is mobilised, the worse that algal blooms will be.

A high proportion of P comes from sewage works, especially the smaller works where the consent standards can be 2ppm or more and it is uneconomic to install P strippers which would only be used where a works serves at least 10,000 persons. Even then, due to the costs involved, water companies are reluctant to install them without significant pressure. Even a standard of 1ppm is considered to be too high by some authorities. It is more than likely that those STW's have been quietly going about their business sticking lots of P into the river and the chicken farms were the tipping point.

Perhaps John Bailey could direct his attention towards locating those smaller STW's in the Wye tributaries and getting a look at their P consent standards. They are in the public domain so the information is out there.
 

JohnH

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It is more than likely that those STW's have been quietly going about their business sticking lots of P into the river and the chicken farms were the tipping point....
The Times article also states that the number of chickens being intensively produced in the area - more than 20 million at any one time - has doubled since 2014, which chimes with Bob's comment...
 

Rod3

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Now living in Cornwall on the border with Devon.
As the President of a fishing club hit by industrial Polution I recently asked a member of Angling Trust’s’ Fish Legal’ team, why government stood by and did nothing to prevent the increase in river pollution . The solicitor at Fish Legal said, look at the Industries Act. It requires all government departments to ‘ Support Industry’. I gather therefore that the E.A., Defra and others are prevented from bringing offenders to account for fear that such action would damage business, large or small, affect employment and hurt the country’s economy.
If we wish to change the industry act and/or the the attitude towards pollution within government departments, we need to petition Parliament.
 

John Bailey

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I am indeed aware of Page 10 of today’s Times, and I greet the news with open arms. I have to say that after I met with the Wye & Usk Foundation two weeks ago, I began to believe that they had been working to secure such an outcome. Therefore I am not amazed the Times has got hold of this. I’m jaded enough to realise that this development is not the solution to everything wrong with the Wye, but it has to be seen as a good start, surely?

I think it’s fair to say that many farmers are caring and are aware of the poultry manure issue, whilst some are not. That Avara Foods “is pledged” to stop this insidious pollution obviously puts pressure on all farmers, in a way that the EA and NRW either cannot or will not. That Avara might well be saying this for PR/commercial reasons does not bother me, providing they hold true to their promise. Sometimes you have to sup with the devil to get things done... not that implying that company is unholy in any way!

I have said that just because the rain came and the river looks in fine fettle, our eye should not be taken off the ball, and I am delighted the story rumbles on. The question is, how can Avara be urged to continue fighting the good fight?
 

BobP

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The Centre for Ecology and Hydrometry (CEH) which is based at Wallingford in Oxfordshire is a useful source of information about the effects of P. They would be my first port of call. I had quite a lot to do with them when I was with the EA at their nearby offices. We were looking at the effects of P from small STW's at the top end of the Kennet & Avon Canal. Their view was that even a consent standard of 1ppm was too high and 0.6ppm would be better, but the then technology was unable to clean the discharge down to that level,

That was at least 15 years ago and thing should have changed by now. Worth exploring.

One thing is absolutely certain. Shut every chicken farm down overnight and there will still be algal blooms in ten years time. P is very persistent.
 

John Bailey

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‘The State of our Rivers’​

I’m gratified there is still interest in the Wye and all our rivers, but then again, how can there not be? I have spent the morning watching a YouTube launch meeting for The State Of Our Rivers report, put together by the Rivers Trust and, if you have an hour to kill, I’d suggest you do the same (see above). You’ll also find a link on the Rivers Trust website>>, and the site itself is worth a browse if you have not been on it before.

If you take the time to watch this you will have your own opinions, which are every bit as valid as mine, in many cases more so. However, for my part, there was little in the film I did not know, but it did help amplify that knowledge. There were nine of ten talking heads from the EA, the Trust itself, from wild swimmers, government, River Action UK, and the media. Everyone spoke sense, showed concern and passion, and explained the problems we face clearly. Then why did I find the whole experience profoundly depressing, apart from the fact that fish and fishing were barely considered worth a mention?

I expect this goes back to 1995. That was the year that the EA and the Wye & Usk Foundation were both formed, and I was captivated by a sense of new beginnings. Simon Johnson was head of EA Fisheries in Norfolk, and his enthusiasm and input were a breath of fresh air. Equally, Stephen Marsh-Smith at the infant WUF blew me away with his fervour and his apparent understanding of the Wye’s problems, especially relating to salmon. This all happened twenty six years ago, and in that while I have seen a proliferation of environmental initiatives, and a whole host of experts working to put our rivers right. The result, as we all know, is that only 14% of our rivers today are even passably okay, and the vast majority are in a sorry state indeed.

The State Of Our Rivers report only amplified this knowledge, and contributed even more damning data to the whole sorry scenario. In short, the water companies allow floods of sewage into our rivers, and farmers pollute our rivers with an endless cocktail of contaminants. There are other issues too, but in the view of the report, these are arguably the biggies.

But who is going to a thing about this? Government? The EA? Natural England? Defra? Natural Resources Wales? Any one of a thousand independent organisations like WUF, the Rivers Trust or even the Angling Trust? The last twenty six years, and this Zoom meeting, suggested not a chance. Mark Lloyd possibly came out strongest when he called for all these disparate voices to “converge, collaborate and become cohesive” – or something similar! I suspect he is right. Perhaps we have had enough of a babble of voices clamouring to be heard, and possibly one body that can really get things done is the way forward? But where does this body come from? How is it funded? What are its powers? What do the thousands of fishery experts do if they lose their jobs?

As I suggested a day ago, perhaps it is down to the consumer to demand that the supermarkets insist on produce that is grown (or reared) in an ecologically sound fashion? Avara and Tesco might just be taking a lead on chickens that could be rolled out more generally? But, as you can see from all these question marks, my hopes are not high.

I’ll leave you with a photograph of my wife with her first Wye fly-caught barbel. I accept it is not a salmon, but it is something, a suggestion that where there is life there is hope. Mark Lloyd described the treatment of our rivers as “a wicked problem”. It is only right that this conversation continues, surely?

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The post 'Passion for the Wye... 'The State of our Rivers' first appeared in Fish&Fly Magazine.

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Bobfly2

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Of general note is that the current Environment Bill has moved back to the Commons with 14 Lords amendments. One of these is a requirement to eliminate sewage discharges into rivers. There is an intention to pass this Act prior to COP26 so fingers crossed !!
 

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