Chicken excrement is entering the River Wye

The Environment Agency faces new allegations of neglect of the River Wye after a project by a conservation group found effluent and contaminated waters at free-range egg farms flowing directly into watercourses.

Of 47 sites visited in England and Wales in the Wye catchment, 19 had drains running from the poultry units to a nearby watercourse. Many of the farms had drains excavated within a few metres of the sheds.

Charles Watson, chair of River Action, the charity that obtained details of the advisory visits to free-range egg farms under freedom of information laws, said: “These documents show a large number of intensive egg production farms have been allowing the excrement of hundreds of thousands of chickens to run off, without any proper mitigation, straight into the river system.

“This is in clear breach of the regulations, and the bodies protecting the environment have largely been in denial while this has been going on. There has been scandalous neglect over the years.”

The Wye has been blighted by poultry pollution with hundreds of new production units approved in the last two decades to feed the nation’s huge demand. The condition of the river was downgraded last May after campaigners warned its ecosystem had been devastated by intensive poultry production.

The advisory visits to farms were conducted by the Wye and Usk Foundation, which works to improve the ecology of those two rivers. The visits were done in partnership with free-range egg farmers, including suppliers to Noble Foods, owner of the free-range brand the Happy Egg Company.

In an email to Environment Agency (EA) officials sent last February, the foundation said drainage water from the farms was “a pollution risk and should not be directed to watercourses”. It added that the issue was “very common and one that we have found very difficult to address”.

The charity was seeking guidance as to how the runoff should be treated. It is working with farmers to improve protection of the catchment area from effluent and agricultural drainage water.

Simon Evans, chief executive of the foundation, said: ‘Many of the challenges we are trying to resolve are the legacy of historic poor planning decisions, such as when the planners have insisted the units be located too close to watercourses.

“In some cases, the solutions are not obvious and require careful consideration along with guidance from regulators. Noble has been actively engaged in helping to find and fund solutions on the farms that supply them, and their support is driving the progress that is being made to resolve the issues.”

River Action is seeking a judicial review of the EA over allegations it had failed to protect the Wye from agricultural pollution. It is claimed the agency has failed to prevent the spreading of excess organic manure or properly apply the rules.

Ricardo Gama, a solicitor at Leigh Day, which is representing River Action in the judicial review, due to be heard next month at the high court in Cardiff, said: “River Action’s ultimate goal is that the agency takes a strong hand and actually starts enforcing these rules.”

The EA said: “We recognise the River Wye is under pressure, which is why we are already offering a wide range of support to farmers around the river to speed up their transition to more sustainable practices. We work closely with groups like the Wye and Usk Foundation, who provide advice to farmers.

“In the Wye catchment, we carried out 493 farm inspections and issued 285 improvement actions from 1 April to 31 December 2023. These inspections targeted high-priority catchments such as protected habitats, and those where intelligence indicated rule breaches and pollution.”

Noble Foods said: “Over the last three years [we] have been working hard with our producer base in the Wye and Usk region. We are supplied by family-run farms in the region, which represent less than 5% of the total poultry flock in the area. We are encouraging our producers to embrace nature-based solutions, such as wetland pools, as part of our work with the Wye and Usk Foundation.”

Gary Ford, chief executive of British Egg Industry Council said it was “committed to complying with legal requirements and ensuring that egg production does not adversely impact the local environmental infrastructure.”

He said the council was funding a number of independent research projects in this subject area. “The initial evidence suggests that the impact of free-range farming is likely to have a minimal, if any, direct effect on the increased phosphate levels in the Rivers Wye and Usk.”

Rhian Jardine, head of development planning at Natural Resources Wales, said: “[Welsh Water] has published data which indicates that rural land use is contributing to 72% of phosphorus loading of the upper Wye. We will use all the resources at our disposal to prevent pollution. We also recognise that we can’t reach lasting solutions alone. Everyone has a role to play.”