Monday, 20 May 2024

River Wye Action Plan disappoints 

The government’s ‘Action Plan’ for the River Wye has gone down like a lead balloon.

Defra released it on a Friday afternoon in mid-April, with no advance warning, and it largely escaped press coverage. Many groups have since criticised the plan for its lack of ambition. An extraordinary meeting of the Wye Catchment Nutrient Management Board (NMB) dissected the plan over the course of nearly three hours, with Defra’s Team Leader for Water Quality and Agriculture, Will Lacey, answering questions. The NMB then sent a damning letter to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Steve Barclay MP, summarising the meeting and sharing its many concerns and questions about the plan.

If anyone thought that the ‘Action Plan’ had been delayed by months because civil servants were working hard to consult all parties and come up with a robust scheme to save the Wye, they were quickly disabused of the notion. Defra didn’t even consult the Welsh Government to create a cross-border plan, let alone the NMB, the Wye Catchment Partnership or other experts in the region. The NMB concluded its letter to Barclay saying “it is a great shame that no one was consulted on this plan”.

The plan mostly lists actions already happening in the catchment (often led by farm clusters and environmental groups) and highlights measures such as payments for river buffers, which are now available throughout England under the Sustainable Farming Scheme.

Most newsworthy for the Wye is a commitment to allocate “up to £35 million in grant funding for on-farm poultry manure combustors” and to “pilot the use of on-farm Anaerobic Digesters (ADs)”.

The NMB’s letter to Defra highlights “multiple concerns” about AD plants, including “a history of pollution incidents and fish kills locally”, along with problems associated with storing and spreading digestate, and with growing maize as a feedstock which causes soil loss. AD plants also do nothing to reduce the nutrient load, as the process of digestion doesn’t remove any of the phosphate from the manure.

The Chair of the NMB, Herefordshire Councillor Elissa Swinglehurst, asked Lacey what “options appraisal” had been conducted to result in this being included in the plan.

Lacey was quick to acknowledge that he’s aware of concerns around AD plants. He explained, “there was ministerial interest” in the technology, “but we were very cautious” and so “it’s going to be quite a controlled pilot scheme”. I got the impression that Lacey and his team know that more AD plants are not the answer for the Wye, and even pose a risk to it, so have tried to contain misplaced ministerial enthusiasm by channeling it into some small research projects for AD plants on farms with extra safeguards built in. It strikes me as a waste of public money to indulge a minister’s flight of fancy, which is a pretty dire basis for policy-making.

Yet the most controversial part of the plan is the offer of grants for poultry manure combustors.

The Wye catchment is home to over twenty million chickens, who produce more manure than the surrounding land can absorb. The plan shies away from the obvious solution, which is to reduce the number of chickens. Instead it wants to fund combustors which will burn chicken manure so that the nutrient-rich ash can be more easily and economically exported out of the catchment, to areas of the country which could use it as fertiliser.

On one level, we can welcome this as progress. There is finally acknowledgement that we have too much poultry manure, that this is a problem, and that this needs to be addressed. Combustors and similar technologies could help to protect the Wye from excess nutrients. But there is a danger here of silo thinking: what if we solve the problem of the poultry waste but in doing so create a secondary industry dependent on chicken muck, which locks in an intensive farming model and even enables it to grow?

Never mind airborne ammonia emissions. Never mind the risk of avian influenza pandemic. Never mind all the soya imported to feed these animals which is driving the burning of precious habitats in South America. Never mind concerns for animal welfare.

It seems the height of folly to spend public money to process chicken manure, without a clear policy to also reduce the number of chickens.

And anyway, shouldn’t polluting industries pay for their own waste management? I can’t help but feel that this is a plan to save the intensive poultry industry rather than the River Wye. Vested interests want to continue business as usual.

Martin Williams from Farm Herefordshire is enthusiastic about the technical solutions, telling the NMB meeting, “If this area can address the problems required to be addressed and create good water quality, we could find that it is a preferred area to produce, so let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”.

That sounds like an open door to more chickens.

Sarah James, a poultry farmer on the Welsh side of the border, representing Farm Cymru, said, “The Wye Catchment finds itself … in a uniquely opportunist position, in that you have reached a critical mass that it [chicken manure] is now becoming an economically viable product to deal with in a really clever way”. Hurray for capitalism. Roll on the market in chicken shit.

There is an abject refusal to address the heart of the problem: that we need to keep fewer chickens and other animals in the catchment.

The government’s Action Plan references research from Lancaster University. Yet the scientists at Lancaster recommend reducing animal numbers as well as exporting manure and reducing fertiliser use. Defra is cherry-picking recommendations for political convenience, not following the science.

Ultimately we need to eat less meat. Scientists have told us this again and again. The National Food Strategy recommended that we eat 30% less meat. The Climate Change Committee recommended that we eat 35% less meat. But politicians are running scared of the conversation. The Wye is a microcosm, and victim, of this much wider political failure.

Monday, 29 April 2024

The best period pants 

Period pants are a game changer. I wish I could travel back in time and gift them to my teenage self. I’m glad they exist for teenagers starting their periods today.

I only switched away from disposable sanitary pads to period underwear a couple of years ago, when my Mum bought me some period pants as a present. I was unsure and cautious at first. But once I started using them, all my concerns melted away. They’re so much more comfortable and absorbent than sanitary pads. Since then I have evangelised about them with the fervour of a new convert.

So it was a privilege to test and review period underwear for The Telegraph, in my search for the best on the market. As with reusable nappies, I found many of the brands are led by inspiring, entrepreneurial women motivated to create products that are better for people and planet.

Of course, the ultimate reusable option is a menstrual cup. Some of my friends have used the same trusty cup for years. That uses the least planetary resources and is the cheapest way to manage your period. However, if tampons and cups are not for you, then I commend period underwear.

Thursday, 28 March 2024

Letter to Private Eye 

I love Private Eye. It’s a publication that I generally trust. When I know a subject well, I’ve found reports in the Eye to be accurate and often impressively so, honing in on the details that really matter. It’s home to some brilliant journalists.

However I’ve grown increasingly wary of the Agri Brigade column, which sometimes jars with my understanding of farming matters. I was so frustrated by ‘Bio Waste Spreader’s coverage of the Welsh Sustainable Farming Scheme that I wrote my very first letter to the editor. I’m grateful to Private Eye for printing it.


I was disappointed and dismayed to read the Agri-Brigade column mischaracterise the Welsh Sustainable Farming Scheme as proposing “to set aside 20 percent of farmland for trees and wildlife” (Eye 1619). Environmental benefits shouldn’t be set against productive farming; the two ought to go hand-in-hand. Whilst much has been written about ‘no farmers, no food’, there can be neither without nature.

Paying farmers to tackle climate change and restore nature will help to recover ecosystems, making food production more resilient. Farmers need healthy soils which can hold more water to guard against floods and drought.

The proposed target for 10 percent of tree cover on farms is for 10 percent of suitable land rather than the entire holding, and includes existing trees. The Woodland Trust has assessed that average farm tree cover in Wales is already 6-7%. Trees and hedges provide shade and shelter for livestock, complementing good animal husbandry. Fruit and nut trees can also contribute towards food security.

The target to manage another 10 percent of land as ‘habitat’ is even more flexible. This includes species-rich grassland which can be grazed (many farmers already espouse the benefits of herbal leys), ponds, or woodland (whereby the woodland floor can count as habitat whilst the canopy counts as trees - so if your farm is ten percent woodland, you’ve got your twenty percent right there).

Does this amount to taking 20 percent of land out of production? Clearly not. It’s a false binary which fuels a toxic culture war. Misreporting has been rife throughout the media but I expect better from Private Eye.

When I shared my original letter on Twitter, I was quickly informed of a mistake of my own. I had implied that hedgerows counted towards the ten percent of tree cover, when in fact only trees within hedgerows that exceed 3 metres in height count. I thought I’d take the opportunity to clarify that here.

Wednesday, 28 February 2024

For the sake of the River Wye, please enforce the law 

On Friday, I chaired an event in Monmouth called ‘Restore the River’ on behalf of Friends of the River Wye. The recording is now available to watch on YouTube.

It was an ambitious evening with 14 sets of presenters, spanning environmental charities, farmers, agribusinesses and government agencies – all discussing what must be done to restore the River Wye.

The overwhelming takeaway was that we need the regulators – the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales – to enforce the law. Currently, when it comes to dealing with agricultural pollution, they mainly dish out advice and guidance.

Charles Watson, founder and chair of River Action, screwed up a template advisory letter from the EA in frustration. He stressed the futility of this approach by comparing it to a speeding motorist being stopped by the traffic police, who simply say ‘I’m terribly sorry, you’re driving recklessly, we can’t enforce the law but please, we advise you to drive a bit slower’. Is that going to change peoples’ behaviour?

A strong regulatory presence would also create a fair playing field for companies and farmers. Major poultry company Avara Foods explained how it is now exporting the majority of its chicken manure out of the catchment and introducing new soil standards for farmers who want to apply the manure to their own land. These standards are being designed to close a loophole in the Farming Rules for Water regulations, which allows the over-application of phosphorus to soil. They’re addressing a failure of regulation.

Noble Foods, behind the Happy Egg brand, explained that they’re also asking their farmers to take action to mitigate the pollution risk from their chickens. In a competitive market, some farmers will instead leave them, choosing to supply other businesses with lower environmental demands. Essentially, those trying to do the right thing pay a higher price and risk being out-competed by less scrupulous actors with lower production costs, because the poor practice is not penalised.

The health of our river shouldn’t be at the mercy of individual companies and farmers. Preventing pollution shouldn’t be voluntary, it needs to be mandatory.

EA Chair Alan Lovell gave a presentation which mentioned the number of inspections the EA has done in the Wye catchment and how many improvement actions they’d issued. It didn’t say a word about enforcement. I asked him why and he admitted that they hadn’t really done much enforcement. I asked why the EA was still in ‘advice and guidance’ mode when it’s unique selling point is that it can enforce the law. There are loads of bodies doing advice and guidance (including the Wye and Usk Foundation, the Wildlife Trusts, Farm Herefordshire) but only the regulator has the ability to dish out fines and punishment. When Lovell said this ‘will happen’, people in the audience started shouting ‘when?’

It’s a good question. When will it happen? The River Wye’s official status last year was downgraded to ‘unfavourable, declining’. The next stage down is ‘part-destroyed’. What is the EA waiting for?

Disastrously NRW was no better. NRW Chair Sir David Henshaw said, “the best form of regulation is self-regulation”. The audience booed.

I hope those boos echo in their ears. People have had enough of this statutory failure. It’s beyond time to enforce the law. That message needs to be carried back to Ministers in Westminster and Cardiff.

Monday, 22 January 2024

Best reusable nappies 2024 

I’ve updated my guide to the best reusable nappies for The Telegraph. I first tested washable nappies for the newspaper in 2019 and have done updates since, covering my first child’s journey into night-time pull-up pants, and now testing some new arrivals to the market on my second child.

Reusable nappies are the greenest choice (avoiding thousands of throw-away nappies) and work out cheapest in the long-term. A win-win for people and planet.

Last year DEFRA published their life-cycle analysis comparing reusable nappies to disposables and found that reusable nappies have a lower carbon footprint, even taking into account the energy invested in washing the nappies. You can read the Nappy Lady’s summary here and find the full report here.

Recently, the BBC radio programme Sliced Bread crunched all the costs of reusable and disposable nappies with nappy seller Wendy Richards, providing a comprehensive price comparison of budget, mid-range and disposable options in both markets, and found reusables markedly cheaper, even when factoring in costs for running your washing machine and buying detergent. Wendy helpfully shared her sums here.

The trouble is, reusables have a high up-front cost and that can be a barrier for people investing in them. For this reason, they make great presents! If you take your child swimming regularly, I definitely recommend using a reusable swim nappy – and they make great gifts for other children too, saving a stash of disposable swim nappies.

Wednesday, 17 January 2024

Pollution from free-range egg farms 

I was interviewed by BBC Herefordshire about the scandal of pollution stemming from free-range egg farms, and River Action clipped the interview to make it available.

The Observer reported that free-range egg farms are polluting the Wye catchment. The Wye and Usk Foundation visited 49 free-range egg farms and discovered 19 had drains running from the poultry unit to a nearby watercourse, representing a clear pollution risk. This information was only brought to public attention thanks to a Freedom of Information request by River Action.

DEFRA then published a non-denial denial rebutting the story. In it, an anonymous Environment Agency spokesperson said ‘permitted farms are subject to regular inspections’.

This is disingenuous in the extreme. Why? Because only poultry farms with over 40,000 birds need a permit. Most free-range egg farms fall under this threshold. For example, most egg-layer sheds hold 12,000 or 16,000 birds and a number of farms have around 39,000 hens.

I recently asked the EA (via a Freedom of Information Request) how many farm inspections they’d conducted on non-permitted poultry farms in the Wye catchment from 2020-2023. Their answer was none. At least, not knowingly. To be precise, they said, “The Environment Agency does not regulate non permitted poultry units. We may carry out inspections as part of a general farm inspection but we would not keep numbers which would be readily available.”

So most free-range egg farms have gone without inspection, despite warnings for years about pollution coming from such farms.

Of permitted units (over 40k birds) supplying eggs in the Wye catchment, the EA told me they’d inspected 2 in 2020, 1 in 2021, 3 in 2022 and 3 in 2023. They didn’t know how many of those (if any) were free-range sites. They could all be from intensive indoor egg-layers.

I think Charles Watson from River Action is justified in accusing the EA of “scandalous neglect”.

DEFRA should admit they’ve not done enough and seek to do better. They should reduce the permit threshold so that units with fewer than 40,000 birds actually get inspected, and routinely. There’s an idea for the government’s promised ‘Plan for the Wye’, which is long-overdue.

Sunday, 3 December 2023

Interview with Hamza Yassin at Hay Winter Weekend 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Hamza Yassin at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend about his book Be A Birder: The Joy of Birdwatching and How to get Started. You can watch our conversation on Hay Player and his passion for birds is utterly transporting.

Hamza moved to the UK from Sudan when he was eight years old. Compared to the rich wildlife of his homeland, Britain seemed barren to him at first. But he soon started noticing birds and some of them were even familiar to him. For example, when he saw skylarks, he thought he recognised them from Sudan but reasoned “it can’t be the same bird” because their behaviour was completely different. In Sudan they were running up and down the Nile, picking things up. In the UK they were singing and calling, trying to attract mates. He started learning about migration and the incredible lives of birds.

He champions “birds without borders”. Birds need to be protected everywhere. They don’t belong to one country or another, “they belong to Mother Nature”.

With most birds, you hear them before you see them. Hamza can recognise their calls, like he’d recognise the voice of a relative calling him. He sees them as kin. With skylarks, you hear them for a long time before you see them. Chris Packham gave him a top tip once: when you see a skylark, lie down. Lie on your back with your binoculars up. Eventually you’ll spot them and see that they are incredibly high up. You can just lie still, enjoying the bird. When they’re done singing, they parachute down and you can get a proper good look at them, which is so rewarding.

Listening to Hamza is an uplifting experience. We also had some great questions from the audience, including one gentleman who asked Hamza for his thoughts about raptor deaths on shooting estates and whether shooting ought to be regulated. Hamza replied in some detail, starting with:

Shooting is not a sport. If it’s a sport, give the animals a rifle back.

Tuesday, 24 October 2023

Can Bannau Brycheiniog bring biodiversity back from the brink? 

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to write this feature for Prospect magazine – titled ‘Dear Green Place’ in the November 2023 issue.

Nature is more depleted inside our national parks than outside their boundaries. Like me, you might expect that our ‘protected landscapes’ would be better for wildlife than the surrounding countryside. So why aren’t they?

Well, the short answer is that national parks are largely comprised of privately-owned farmland and farming has been the primary driver of nature loss due to intensification, over-grazing and use of pesticides and other chemicals.

Bannau Brycheiniog National Park took the bold step of making a short film with the world-famous actor Michael Sheen which told the truth about the degraded state of nature in the park. Sheen surveys the uplands and says, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Then we hear the doubt. “Isn’t it?”

Where some see beauty, others see a barren landscape devoid of life. The poet Owen Sheers told me:

“I associated the environment [of the Bannau] with natural beauty, wilderness, getting back to an intimate connection with nature. But then your idea and perception of aesthetics changes with knowledge. I now see those upland areas as ecologically arid and not beautiful at all.”

The question of how to recover nature in our national parks is not only an ecological challenge – it’s a political, social and cultural one too. It’s about power and education.

I also appeared on the Prospect podcast to discuss all of this. So if this article interests you, do have a listen too.

Tuesday, 15 August 2023

Discussing Avara on BBC Farming Today 

BBC Farming Today asked me for my reaction to the news that Avara Foods is stopping chicken manure from its supply chain being sold as a fertiliser within the Wye catchment. You can read the letter Avara has sent to its suppliers. It also has plans to trial new manure management standards for farms who wish to use the manure on their own land.

I welcome the fact that, in the short term, Avara has recognised that they “need to act urgently” to get manure out of the catchment. This is a major step forward from the biggest poultry producer in the area. I doubt it would have happened without public pressure.

It’s also been a long time coming. Cargill (which jointly owns Avara) has known since the 1980s about the damaging nature of high quantities of poultry manure to rivers - as a Judge in the US recently made clear. In 2004, Cargill & other poultry companies published adverts promising residents in Oklahoma that they’d develop manure management standards for muck spreading & ship more out the catchment. Sound familiar? Over the last 18 years Cargill expanded its operations on the Wye without mitigation.

Avara says farms who want to spread muck on their own land will have to comply with new soil management standards being developed by Red Tractor. Red Tractor does not have a good environmental record - so we need to see what these new standards are & how they’ll be audited. As I previously reported in an exclusive story for The Times, an internal report from the Environment Agency found that Red Tractor farms were more likely to fail environmental inspections than farms who were not part of the scheme. The devil will be in the detail. I hope they get it right.

Ultimately Avara's model of factory farming is out of balance with its environment and unsustainable. It imports soya from South America to feed the chickens. It will now expend emissions transporting the manure somewhere else. We need system change.

Monday, 12 June 2023

Hay Festival – Planet Assembly and more 

There was a new initiative at Hay Festival this year called Planet Assembly. I reported on all nine sessions and compiled a daily bulletin.

Each Assembly was devoted to a different topic – for example, Energy, Food, Transport, Biodiversity etc. We’d hear from an expert witness (or witnesses) and then break out into groups to address the problems shared. The challenge was always: how we can move from where we are to where we need to be?

My final bulletin offers a summary of the ethos of the whole thing. My main takeaway?

We need urgent, radical action in every area of society. The good news is that many of the actions that we must take to prevent catastrophic climate breakdown will also help to restore biodiversity, make us feel more connected to our communities and less lonely, make life more affordable, and improve our health and wellbeing.

In addition to reporting on Planet Assembly, I also worked with Friends of the Upper Wye to programme a pop-up event discussing the plight of the river. We brought together an eclectic collection of twelve speakers, comprising journalists, lawyers, farmers, campaigners, poets and swimmers, to explain the crisis and advocate for solutions.

I also had the pleasure of chairing a fascinating discussion about the Battle for Britain’s Rivers, which is now available to watch on Hay Player.

The Festival coincided with Natural England downgrading the River Wye’s official status from ‘Unfavourable, Recovering’ to ‘Unfavourable, Declining’. Channel 4 News asked me for my reaction.

Thursday, 27 April 2023

Farmer jailed for damage to River Lugg 

There has been a lot of misinformation circulating about the case of the farmer, John Price, who has been sentenced to a year in prison for destroying a section of the River Lugg in Herefordshire.

Due to the high public interest, I thought it might be helpful to share the Judge’s Sentencing Remarks – it’s a 10 page PDF.

This is how the Judge summarised the farmer’s actions:

He has turned a traditional, tree lined, meandering river, full of wildlife, into a canal void of most life. It is nothing short of ecological vandalism on an industrial scale.

The BBC published an excellent summary of the case, highlighting Price’s many previous misdemeanours and offences. Price even ignored a stop notice by Natural England when carrying out this damage. The Judge said:

He seems to adopt the attitude that the rules do not apply to him.

When someone from the Wye and Usk Foundation saw the damage Price was doing and photographed and videoed it from a public footpath, Price pursued them for nearly 12 miles, driving aggressively, flashing lights and shouting for them to get out of their car. The Judge notes that Price had a “history of hostility” towards officials. This behaviour is relevant because the Judge said:

A significant aggravating factor in this case is Mr Price’s repeated aggressive and uncooperative attitude towards officials.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this case has sparked a debate about river ecology and flooding. There are farmers, like the YouTuber Olly Harrison, who insist that rivers are like gutters which need to be cleaned out. Over 10,000 people have signed a petition saying that Price “did the most amazing job clearing the banks and dredging the bottom of the River Lugg”. They believe Price was reducing the risk of flooding to local homes and acting in the public interest. On this, the Judge was crystal-clear that Price’s actions will have had the opposite effect:

In fact, Mr Price’s actions have made matters worse. The channel is deeper, wider and straighter which increases flow rate and volume as it approaches the road bridge which still provides a choke point for the water. The riverbanks have been denuded by the removal of trees and vegetation. It seems to me, that the praise of Mr Price’s remodelling of the river by some local residents arises out of a total ignorance of the true impact of his actions to nature and the environment.

There is clearly a need (and an opportunity) for public education here. Perhaps other farmers, the Environment Agency, Natural England and environmental organisations like the Rivers Trust and the Wildlife Trusts could put out content explaining why what Price has done will worsen the risk of flooding. By ripping up mature trees which would have acted as a buffer, Price has increased the amount of soil and silt that will now wash into the river.

The Judge wanted this sentence to mark the seriousness of damage to a Site of Special Scientific Interest and serve as a deterrent to others. Whilst some think a 1 year sentence is harsh, it’s worth considering that last week a Just Stop Oil protestor received a 3 year prison sentence for seeking to protect the natural world.

Monday, 3 April 2023

Red Tractor farms are more likely to pollute the environment 

I have an exclusive story in The Times today exposing a damning report from the Environment Agency (EA) about the Red Tractor scheme.

Last year I wrote a story for the Guardian about an EA report that I discovered from North Devon which was condemnatory of pollution caused by the dairy industry & the Red Tractor scheme.

In the wake of that story, I decided to keep digging and submitted a Freedom of Information request to the EA for all correspondence between them and Red Tractor.

Earlier this year, I received a response with tens of email attachments. I spent hours scanning through mundane emails before finding that one of the emails contained an attachment: an internal report authored by the Environment Agency in 2020 titled ‘Assessment of the environmental performance of Red Tractor Assured farms’. It runs to around 50 pages and is a significant piece of work. I had no idea such a report existed.

The contents are shocking. It concluded that “Red Tractor Assured farms were less compliant (26%) with EA inspections compared to non-RTA farms (19%)”. In other words, Red Tractor farms were more likely to fail EA environmental inspections than farms who aren’t members of the scheme. That’s the case for nearly every agricultural sector — including dairy, beef, pigs, poultry and arable crops — with RTA members being found to have lower compliance with environmental regulations. The one exception was Red Tractor farms growing fruit and veg in the horticulture sector which were found to have “relatively good” environmental performance.

The report also says Red Tractor farms have caused more serious pollution incidents than non-Red Tractor farms.

The EA report concluded, “Red Tractor membership is not currently an indicator of good environmental performance, and therefore we do not recommend extending Earned Recognition to RTA farms.”

The concept of ‘earned recognition’ means that if the EA could be confident that an assurance scheme guaranteed high standards of environmental protection, it could consider such farms lower risk for causing pollution and depriorotise them for regulatory inspections.

The Red Tractor logo is meant to assure consumers that its products are ‘farmed with care’. It’s even running TV adverts at the moment, voiced by Sara Cox, saying: “When the Red Tractor’s there, your food’s farmed with care”.

Can you trust the Tractor? The Environment Agency don’t think so.

Thursday, 16 March 2023

Children are being left out of the childcare debate 

Have we forgotten the child in the childcare debate? I’ve been haunted by that question ever since I wrote a feature for Prospect magazine on that very subject last year.

Short answer: yes!

In the lead up to the Budget there was wall-to-wall coverage of the childcare crisis in the UK and yet nobody was talking about the children whose care is at stake and what’s best for them. The entire narrative was about getting parents back to work and closing the gender pay gap. Once you notice that silence, it’s deafening.

I spoke to Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Early Years Alliance, and he told me, “the child is right at the back of the agenda in everything coming forward at the moment”. That should raise alarm.

When Chancellor Jeremy Hunt made a huge childcare offer the centrepiece of his budget and said he was removing “the barriers to work” for “parents who have a child under three”, I saw the culmination of the logic. Are babies and small children merely barriers to work?

So I penned this opinion piece for the New Statesman, howling against the wind.

Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Talking about Avara on BBC Farming Today 

I was glad to be invited on to BBC Farming Today to discuss Avara’s plan to clean up their contribution to the pollution of the Wye, following my story in the Guardian and three hour chat with Avara’s agricultural director John Reed.

I made the point that this is a problem caused by factory farming – by concentrating so many chickens in one place, we have created a nutrient hotspot out of balance with local ecology.

I enjoyed talking to presenter Anna Hill and you can listen to what I have to say, starting 7 minutes into the programme.

Friday, 3 February 2023

Should Avara pay reparations to clean up the River Wye? 

A couple of weeks ago Avara Foods invited me to have a chat with their Agricultural Director John Reed. We talked for nearly three hours and it was a fascinating conversation. Avara is responsible for over 16 million of the over 20 million birds farmed in the Wye catchment so what they do really matters.

I was surprised by their invitation but welcomed their willingness to talk directly, particularly because I was keen to scrutinise their new ‘roadmap for the future management of poultry manure’. Their headline promise is that: “By 2025, our supply chain will not contribute to excess phosphate in the River Wye”.

The fact that they’re now trying to take responsibility for the manure from their millions of chickens is welcome – but there are serious questions about how their plan will work and it is very late coming when problems on the Wye have been raised for years and a lesson from America should have prevented this situation from ever arising.

A landmark legal ruling in the United States recently found that Cargill and other poultry companies polluted the Illinois River with poultry litter. The Judge stated that the companies had known since the 1980s about the damaging effects to rivers of phosphorus in poultry manure. Back in 2004, Cargill and other poultry companies took out advertisements telling the residents of Oklahoma that they would incorporate new nutrient management standards and export more manure out of the catchment. Why has it taken over eighteen years to offer up a similar plan in the UK? Cargill has known for decades that poultry manure can damage a river system when highly concentrated in one area. Why didn’t Cargill use that knowledge to mitigate the risks in other areas, for example when they were expanding their operations on the Wye?

These are all points raised by my Guardian article today. Here I want to share a few other things that I learned from my exclusive interview with John Reed.

A major study published by scientists at Lancaster University focussed minds in the Wye catchment on quantifying phosphorus flows and identified a huge surplus of livestock manure. Reed told me he welcomes Lancaster’s work but disputes their figures. The scientists used standard DEFRA figures to calculate the amount of phosphorus in poultry manure. Avara have undertaken their own analysis. They say they asked all of their 120 farms to tell them how much manure they produce a year and they also took two samples from every farm, one of poultry litter (poultry manure mixed with bedding material) and one of pure poultry faeces, and tested them in a laboratory to obtain their phosphorus content. Reed said that due to reducing the phosphorus content of their poultry feed and breeding increasingly efficient chickens, their manure and nutrient footprint is smaller than that estimated in the Lancaster study. Avara has sent their data to Lancaster for review because they say they don’t want to be ‘marking their own homework’. Their figures have not yet been independently verified.

Avara’s roadmap says they have reduced the phosphate in their feed by 27% since 2016. Yet the company also significantly expanded their operations over that period, putting millions more birds into the Wye catchment. Reed acknowledged that the company’s expansion offset their nutrient reductions, telling me, “they kind of cancelled each other out”.

Avara pledges to introduce ‘more robust nutrient, soil and manure management standards’. If farmers in their supply chain want to use poultry manure as a fertiliser and spread it to land, Reed says they will need to prove the agronomic need. Avara has not yet determined how this will happen. Reed told me that he’s trying to figure out where this independent third-party verification will come from.

Avara don’t own the poultry farms in their supply chain, nor the anaerobic digesters who receive some of their poultry waste, so much hinges on how they will write their contracts and how they will police manure management. This merits utmost scrutiny.

Avara’s plan also involves exporting some manure out of the catchment and sending manure to a proposed new Anaerobic Digester in Herefordshire, which would be owned and run by a third party, and use a novel phosphate-stripping technology to make a fertiliser which could be more easily exported out of the catchment. The latter plan is contingent upon the project being granted planning permission and there are many concerns and objections linked to the application.

Reed said that Avara currently processes around 2 million birds a week, which is the capacity of their factory, and they have no current plans for expansion. However, he added, “I can’t promise what will happen in the future or offer any guarantee that we won’t expand.”

Christine Hugh-Jones from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales told me, “The court judgment in the US has proven that Avara’s parent company Cargill knew that they were polluting waterways decades ago. During the 13-year wait for the judgment, Cargill turned a blind eye to the known risks as it treated the Welsh Marches to the American experience, ramping up intensive poultry farming in Herefordshire and Powys. Only now, when there is a public outcry, has Avara pledged to bring its phosphate pollution of the River Wye to zero by 2025. What happens in the intervening years and what hard evidence is there that they can and will achieve this goal?”

That should be the question ringing in all of our ears. Reed also told me that he would welcome more regulation and enforcement from the Environment Agency. Will our governments and environmental agencies in England and Wales feel emboldened to step into the breach?

Tuesday, 10 January 2023

Will the Welsh Government intervene to save the Wye? 

The beady-eyed Christine Hugh-Jones, a seasoned campaigner against intensive poultry units in Wales, was preparing to object to another chicken factory when she saw a new document appear on the Powys planning portal: a Holding Direction from the Welsh Government.

This means that a Welsh Government Minister could ‘call in’ the application to make a decision on it, rather than leave that decision to the local planning authority. In the meantime, Powys County Council can’t approve the unit.

Could this be the moment that the Welsh Government show some leadership to protect Welsh rivers? Powys County Council and the environmental regulator, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), have continued to approve intensive poultry units (and all other intensive livestock operations) despite scientific evidence showing that the Wye catchment is overloaded with phosphorus, primarily from intensive livestock. There are too many animals creating too much manure in one concentrated area and its throwing the whole ecology out of balance and driving the death of a once-thriving river.

I tweeted this news and soon the nature writer Robert Macfarlane tweeted to ask the Welsh Government to call in the application. He said it was “a crucial moment in the life or death of the Wye”. The Guardian asked me to write the story.

The BBC Wales Investigates programme What’s Killing Our Rivers? reported that NRW told them that “when it comes to muck spreading, they don’t proactively check how its done”. This is the crux of the issue. Nobody is checking or policing what happens to all the manure in the catchment and that’s a disaster. Sewage pollution flooding into rivers is all over the news, but there is also a tsunami of poo coming from intensive livestock which is less visible but probably more dangerous.

The Chair of the Wye’s Nutrient Management Board, Elissa Swinglehurst, once described trying to deal with nutrient pollution in the Wye as “like trying to empty a bath with the taps still running”. Will the Welsh Government turn off the taps?

Friday, 16 December 2022

NFU report on Farming and the River Wye 

Earlier this month the National Farmer’s Union published a report to showcase positive work being done by farmers to safeguard the River Wye.

Positive action to improve soil quality and protect rivers is welcome, and individual efforts should be applauded, but aspects of the report are obfuscatory and misleading.

We need farmers to lead the way in cleaning up the river because the Environment Agency says that farming is responsible for over two-thirds of the phosphate pollution on the Wye. Unfortunately the NFU’s report doesn’t mention this, so the average reader might not realise that the farming sector is the river’s primary polluter. When will they acknowledge farming’s share of the pollution and take full responsibility for addressing it?

The NFU report includes six farm case studies and whilst it discloses some information about these farms, including how many cattle and sheep they keep and how many acres of arable land they farm, it’s strangely coy about one thing: the numbers of chickens and turkeys.

Three of the featured farms mention that they keep poultry, so I asked the NFU press office how many birds each kept. They wouldn’t tell me.

The NFU press officer argued that the report isn’t about numbers, it’s about “positive mitigation” of pollution. I contend that positive mitigation depends upon understanding the numbers. The problem on the Wye is a systemic one. As a key study by Professor Paul Withers and colleagues at Lancaster University has demonstrated, there is more livestock manure in the Wye catchment than the land can absorb and so the excess nutrient goes into rivers, feeding algal blooms. There are over 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment. The scientists at Lancaster recommend removing 80 per cent of the poultry manure, by reducing the overall number of chickens and by exporting the nutrients from the remaining manure out of the catchment. That’s the scale of the challenge.

Let’s take one case study in the NFU report as an example. It says that Sharon Hammond farms with her family near Builth Wells and has 1,600 ewes, some cattle and “produces over 40,000 poultry per year”. The NFU, remember, won’t tell me how many birds the Hammond farm actually stocks. Yet Wales Farmer recently published an interview with Hammond in which she says they keep 120,000 birds at any one time. So what are the NFU trying to hide? A permit for the farm also reveals that Hammond has “130,000 places designed for rearing chickens for meat production”. The birds live for around 6 weeks before being slaughtered for meat. Then after a week’s rest, the cycle starts again. So the Hammond family are likely processing around 800,000 birds a year on their farm. Quite a lot “over 40,000 per year”.

These numbers give a different picture of what farming in the Wye catchment looks like. Whilst the report is illustrated with nice photographs of trees, lush green fields, tractors, sheep and worms in the soil – it doesn’t show a single intensive poultry unit. The 20 million odd birds being factory-farmed are hidden from view. Greenwashing? It’s certainly misleading.

The NFU report says that farms are “heavily regulated, manure and soil management plans are in place”. Yet the Welsh regulator, Natural Resources Wales, recently admitted in their Core Management Plan for the River Wye that manure spreading from intensive poultry units is a problem but “other than through agricultural cross compliance, these operations are currently outside of regulatory control”. Who’s checking manure management plans are being followed? Nobody. Meanwhile the Environment Agency reports that the majority of farms breach pollution regulations. There is scarcely any enforcement action against polluters. DEFRA have instructed the agencies to take an ‘advice-led’ approach. Heavily regulated? If only.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Interview with Philip Lymbery at Hay Winter Weekend 

It was a privilege to interview Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming and author of Farmageddon, at the Hay Festival Winter Weekend.

We discussed his latest book Sixty Harvests Left. Lymbery has travelled the world highlighting the horrors of factory farming and how it is driving habitat destruction, biodiversity loss and climate change, whilst perpetrating terrible animal cruelty. It seemed fitting to welcome him to the chicken capital of the UK, with the Wye Valley home to over 20 million chickens, the vast majority of which live miserable, cramped lives in warehouses, before being slaughtered at six weeks old. Lymbery believes, as he writes in his book, that this form of farming will come to be seen as the “cruelest folly of our time. Like the slave trade, we will wonder how we let it happen”.

I learned a lot from Lymbery’s travels and eye-witness reportage, including the fact that the vast majority of Italian parmesan and Gran Padarno cheese comes from dairy cows who have never been outside. They may be ‘grass-fed’, but that grass is hoovered up by machines and conveyed to them in warehouses.

Lymbery’s book has much in common with George Monbiot’s book Regenesis. Both authors highlight the extraordinary life-giving importance of soil and lament that too often we treat soil like dirt. They also largely share the same analysis of the problems posed by industrial farming, but diverge when it comes to solutions. Lymbery champions meat from organic, pasture-fed ruminants. Monbiot argues that such meat can’t feed the world without devouring the planet.

As a proponent of eating 'less but better’ meat, Lymbery said that the UK needs to reduce its meat consumption by 70 per cent. I asked how much meat and fish we could reasonably expect to eat whilst enabling any kind of nature recovery. He told me:

In the very near future, a couple of times a week. Two pieces of meat, probably each one being about the size of a pack of playing cards.

Both Lymbery and Monbiot agree that we need to see a huge dietary shift towards plant-based foods. They are also both hopeful about new technologies that can produce meat without the cruelty or land footprint.

We need a revolution in food labelling (so consumers know where their food comes from) and we need restaurants, cafes and public buildings to offer us a far greater variety of vegan food, so we’re enticed to make better choices.

Wednesday, 9 November 2022

Majority of farms breaching environmental regulations 

Following my report for the Guardian that 87% of cattle farms in North Devon were breaching environmental regulations, the Environment Agency’s latest report reveals that 52% of farms inspected in England in 2021 were found to have breached rules around storage of slurry, silage and agricultural fuel oil.

The data is published in the EA’s ‘Regulating for People, Environment and Growth, 2021’ report. It also states that 43% of inspected farms were found to be non-compliant with at least one of the Farming Rules for Water.

The dairy sector was identified as the main offender, responsible for half of all farming’s serious pollution incidents. The report notes particular concerns around slurry storage and management.

Supermarkets and milk buyers ought to be asking serious questions of their dairy producers and working with them to ensure compliance with all environmental standards. With farming the leading cause of river pollution, dirty dairy deserves to attract the same headlines as the sewage scandal.

Monday, 31 October 2022

BBC Farming Today  

I was invited to speak on BBC Farming Today (27 October) to discuss the Environment Agency report which revealed that two-thirds of cattle farms in North Devon were polluting on the day of inspection. You can read my Guardian report here.

I was delighted that reporter Charlotte Smith continued to follow the story the next day, focussing on the fact that most of the farms were ‘Red Tractor Assured’. On the 28 October on BBC Farming Today, Charles Watson from River Action described the Red Tractor logo as a farce. What’s the point of an Assurance scheme that offers no assurance?

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