Linklog entries in May 2024

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.