December 2020 update: On 17th December 2020 NRW published the long awaited ‘Compliance assessment of the River Wye SAC against phosphorus targets’. The report concludes that over 60% of the River Wye and its catchments fail against phosphate limits.
NRW will be working with local planning authorities, including Powys, with a view to ensuring that proposed new developments which have the potential to increase phosphate levels in the river and its catchments are not approved unless they can demonstrate phosphate neutrality or betterment. The Regulatory Position Statement and Planning Position Statement provide some further information but specific advice on the assessment of planning proposals in relation to phosphates is still in development.
The report does not identify the major sources of the Wye’s excess phosphate and NRW state that in the accompanying press release they have not found a direct connection between phosphate levels and the rapid increase in recent years in the numbers of poultry units in the catchment. This is not surprising given the complex and various pathways by which phosphates may reach river waters and the potential for ‘legacy phosphate’ built up in soils over time to leach into rivers years later. However, the most recent modelling carried out by the Environment Agency attributes 66% of phosphates in the cross-border Upper Wye and Lugg sub-catchments to arable and livestock farming, 25% to sewage treatment works, with the remaining 9% attributed to other sources including highways, urban areas, industry, combined sewer overflows and other sources of sewage.
Just when the Wye turns a putrid green and the contribution of diffuse pollution from intensive poultry farms in the Powys headwaters hits the national headlines, Powys gives consent to four more poultry farms.
How can this happen? Let’s look back to 2016.
On 29th October 2016 our Brecon and Radnor branch held our first public Annual Seminar Day “Ponds, Rivers and Poultry” chaired by Professor Steve Ormerod, eminent conservationist and fresh-water ecologist from Cardiff University. We looked at the impacts of the industry in Powys on rivers. We invited the industry and farmers, NRW (who made a presentation), Powys and Herefordshire Council officers and councillors, many environmental groups and anybody else interested. The conclusion was that we desperately need urgent research and evidence.
The only group not represented was Powys County Council despite being invited. Planning officers and Councillors had been told not to attend by the Council’s Scrutiny officers.
Soon after, the report “Industrial-scale chicken farms are polluting Wales’ rivers: Rivers at risk include the Wye, the Usk, the Tywi and the Severn” appeared in Wales Online: 16/11/16.
Fast forward to Sunday June 21st 2020:
- “It’s like pea soup’: poultry farms turn Wye into wildlife death trap” (Observer: 21/6/20)
- “Free-range egg farms choking life out of the Wye” (Sunday Times: 21/6/20)
By November 2016, nearly 5 ¼ million chicken-places had been applied for in Powys. Between then and now, numbers almost doubled to nearly 10 million (9,921,499). There have been 109 new applications, 95 approvals (including applications dated before November 2016), with 23 currently awaiting decision.
This nearly-10-million chickens is made up of broilers (52%), fertile-egg layers (2%), pullets until 16 weeks old (9%), and “free-range” egg-layers over 16 weeks old (37%) which have access to outdoor-ranges of 1 hectare per 2,000 hens (RSPCA standards). All are housed in sheds, often tiered, which take up to 55,000 birds. Of course there are many more actual birds per year: an egg-layer is kept for approximately a year but a broiler is “harvested” at about 38 days and pullets graduate at 16 weeks. The industry formula for ammonia emissions reckons the “free-range” chickens average 12% of the time outside.
When we think about the impacts of the chicken poo, we must the add up the manure from all types of intensive chicken rearing, adjusting for the typical volume and composition of each type and look where it goes. The outdoor-ranges will be an important but fractional part of this calculation.
Pandemics and human health aside, the critical environmental risks are well-evidenced impacts of air-born ammonia emissions on biodiversity and the pollutants in the vast volumes of manure that are mainly spread on nearby land. Climate change extremes have added to river vulnerability. Increased rainfall and flooding accelerate run-off of phosphates and nitrogen compounds and hot, dry spells reduce water volume and flow, concentrating pollutants.
If the numbers have nearly doubled in 3½ years, making Powys “the chicken capital of Europe”, and if so many environmental organisations and residents are demanding action, why has nothing been done to halt the expansion?
Powys planning function has retreated into a bunker. They no longer publish third party comments on planning applications and have changed their constitution so that the larger, environmentally-sensitive applications (governed by Environmental Impact Regulations) can be decided behind closed doors. Powys very rarely refuse applications, insisting they are guided by NRW and the Welsh Government. The industry has enjoyed a prolonged field-day over the past five years, with 30 times as many applications to Powys as in neighbouring Ceredigion.
In 2010, before the explosion of chicken sheds across Powys, the Wye was one of the cleanest rivers in the UK. Can NRW really believe that there is no connection between the unprecedented density of intensive chicken farms in Powys and the deplorable state of the Wye Special Area of Conservation? When everyone knows that the fish, which indicate clean healthy water, are fast disappearing, is there really “no reasonable scientific doubt” about this complacency? What has happened to the Precautionary Principle?
The Welsh Government and NRW seem fully prepared to sacrifice our environment for short-term gains. BRB-CPRW is petitioning the Welsh Assembly to call a halt to this madness and make a proper investigation of the impacts. Please join CPRW and help us make them practice what they preach in their legislation about the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources before our precious River Wye goes the way of so many other industrialised rivers.
We have produced a couple of maps illustrating the extent of the pollution problem in Powys. They can be viewed and downloaded from here, or from the Powys Rivers – Map link in the menu bar above.
[Updated January 2021]