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The river has been blighted by agricultural pollution in recent years

Defra has launched a multimillion-pound action plan to tackle the farming-linked pollution that has blighted the River Wye.

The plan includes up to £35m in grant funding for poultry manure management equipment (known as combustors) in the Wye Special Area of Conservation catchment, to facilitate the export of poultry litter to where it is needed.

Defra is also appointing ex-MEP Anthea McIntyre as a new ‘river champion’ to oversee a taskforce to run the action plan and help restore the Wye.

The river, which is surrounded by agricultural land, including a series poultry farms, was “cherished by residents and visitors”, Defra said.

“However, its condition is declining due to pressures including climate change, invasive species, and pollution from various sources, including from farms across the catchment area.”

The condition of the River Wye Special Area of Conservation, which covers the stretch of the river in England, was downgraded to ‘unfavourable – declining’ last year.

Further actions outlined in the plan include reforming environmental permits so large poultry farms with over 40,000 birds are required to export manure away from areas where they would otherwise cause excess pollution.

It also includes a new circular economy project using manure nutrients with the potential added benefit of boosting rural renewable energy – through a pilot farm trial of micro anaerobic digesters.

Defra said combusting poultry manure provided a source of renewable energy and converted manure to a nutrient-rich ash, which was a valuable fertiliser that was easier to transport and use on farms – reducing risk to the environment.

“Any new combustion units will need approval and we will work with local stakeholders and regulators to ensure robust assessments for protection of the environment and human health,” it added.

The announcement of the action plan comes amid mounting concerns over the state of the Wye catchment and the role of food businesses in the nutrient pollution via run-off into the river that has contributed its decline.

Law firm Leigh Day announced last month that it was launching a group action against poultry giant Avara Foods over its alleged involvement in the pollution.

The case is supported by River Action, which has been campaigning for an end to farm-based pollution in the river for several years.

However, Avara stressed it was not a direct contributor to the pollution in the area, slamming Leigh Day for an “opportunistic attempt to profit from a serious environmental issue”.

“The River Wye is facing real challenges, which is why the government is taking action to restore this important landscape and ensure it is better protected for future generations,” said farming minister Mark Spencer.

“Our plan will dramatically reduce the amount of nutrients entering the river, mostly by helping farmers transition to more sustainable practices. This will include providing up to £35m for on-farm poultry litter combustors and trialling the use of emerging technology to help farmers share organic nutrients with their neighbours.”

The action plan built on “significant measures already in place under our Plan for Water and farming schemes to help farmers speed up their transition to more sustainable agricultural practices”, Defra said.

Improved nutrient management would also deliver benefits for farmers, such as reducing reliance on inorganic fertilisers, a major input cost for farmers, the department added.

But while the “belated emphasis” on reducing pollution in the Wye was welcome, measures to move manure to different parts of the country and the sheer volume of manure being shifted was “likely to lead to problems elsewhere”, claimed Soil Association campaign advisor Cathy Cliff.

“The Defra announcement followed the Soil Association’s Stop Killing our Rivers campaign, which also identified 10 further rivers in England and Wales at risk from intensive poultry pollution,” she said.

“These rivers are already failing UK phosphate targets,” Cliff added.

“The most certain way to avoid river pollution would be to stop intensive poultry units producing such large volumes of manure in the first place. This would also help to protect the fragile ecosystems that are being destroyed in order to produce huge amounts of soya to feed unnaturally fast-growing chickens living in terrible conditions inside these units.”