Global Agriculture

Environment Secretary holds local roundtable to drive forward improvements in River Wye

30 May 2023, UK: Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey met local farmers, councillors, environmental groups, MPs and the Welsh government in Hereford today (Tuesday 30 May) to discuss actions to improve the state of the River Wye.

The roundtable sought to discuss local concerns and ongoing implementation of actions to address the status of the river, particularly in light of its impact on wildlife.

While the River Wye is known as one of the country’s most important sites for salmon fishing and nature conservation, pollution arising from run-off and other sources are leading to formation of algal blooms, harming delicate habitats and nature.

Hosting the meeting, the Environment Secretary set out how restoring the Wye was a priority for both her and all of those in attendance, and outlined how it was important to address each river catchment according to its unique pressures, as part of a consistent approach across the country. She was particularly keen to see how the local council could help facilitate local initiatives to help reduce pollution and to work with the Welsh government too.

She told those gathered that as part of the government’s Plan for Water and farming schemes, a wide range of support is available to farmers in the River Wye catchment, and across the country, to expedite their transition to more sustainable agricultural practices and reduce pollution.

This includes:

  • More than doubling the money for slurry infrastructure for farmers to £34 million through the Slurry Infrastructure Grant scheme. This will expand storage and prevent unnecessary spreading – with £1.2 million allocated to farms in the Wye catchment.
  • Doubling the funding for the Catchment Sensitive Farming programme, which helps farmers reduce water and air pollution through free one-to-one advice.
  • Growing the Environment Agency’s agricultural regulation workforce – enabling more than 4,000 farm inspections across England in the last fiscal year, helping farmers to comply with legal requirements. More than half of all farm inspections carried out by the Environment Agency across the West Midlands from April 2022-February 2023 took place in the Wye catchment. This includes a two-day focused operation in February, where 22 inspections were carried out, as part of efforts to regulate farm practices and boost compliance.
  • And now and in the long term, the government’s farming schemes are paying farmers for actions that protect our rivers and reduce run-off, helping strengthen their role as stewards of the British countryside and rewarding them for work to look after our environment.

Options to ensure manure is best used as a resource to support crop growth are also under review. This builds on grants available through the Farm Equipment and Technology Fund, where farmers can apply for capital grants for technology, such as slurry separators, to improve air and water quality.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said:

The River Wye is clearly struggling and it is vital that we turn the tide on its decline. As I set out in our Plan for Water, we need local plans catchment by catchment, community by community to tackle issues that are affecting water quality. Bringing people together from the local communities, it is clear we have a common goal.

We do all need to work together at a greater pace and with purpose to actively support our farmers and food producers to produce food sustainably and reduce pollution. With the River Wye rising in Wales, it is important to work with the Welsh Government on this issue and I welcome them joining my roundtable today.

Roundtable attendees included local MPs, representatives from Herefordshire Council, the Welsh government, representatives of farming and environmental organisations, food producers, Natural England and the Environment Agency.

This forms the start of a series of local conversations to improve water quality and increase water supply.

In April, the government published its Plan for Water, marking a step-change in how our water system is managed.

Regionally, it outlines additional investment from Severn Trent Water to protect local waters, including £25 million to reduce storm overflows at 80 sites across the region by December 2025.

More broadly, the Plan sets out ambitions for widespread action to tackle nutrient pollution from all sources, including legally binding targets to significantly reduce nutrient pollution from agriculture and wastewater by 2038. The actions in the Plan will deliver a safe, reliable, resilient supply of clean and plentiful water for our homes, businesses, for leisure and for wildlife that rely on it.

Today’s roundtable comes as Natural England has updated the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) condition assessment for the River Wye Special Area of Conservation (SAC) from ‘unfavourable recovering’ to ‘unfavourable declining’ due to a decline in certain types of key wildlife: Atlantic salmon, macrophytes and native white-clawed crayfish.

Emma Johnson, Area Manager for the West Midlands, Natural England said:

Any deterioration of river health is worrying for all of us who share a love for our wonderful rivers. This updated assessment does not indicate a sudden decline or single change in the health of the Wye and Lugg; it has come about as the result of changing agricultural and industrial practices, climate change, urbanisation and a growing population over recent decades.

Reducing the pressures on the rivers in the Wye catchment will therefore also require long term and integrated action: patience, commitment and collaboration across government, regulators, farmers, landowners and the local community.

Natural England will ensure that we, and our partners in the Wye Nutrient Management Board, make full use of the regulatory and voluntary measures at our disposal – whilst also exploring what else can be done to drive forward improvements, as part of wider efforts to ensure a thriving natural world.

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