The Welsh government is under pressure to block a new mega chicken farm in the Wye catchment, in what campaigners call a “crucial moment in the life or death of the Wye”.
The River Wye has become synonymous with the intensive poultry industry, with more than 20 million chickens in its catchment area, producing more manure than the land can absorb and turning the river the colour of “pea soup”.
A scientific study led by Lancaster University recommends an 80% reduction in poultry manure in the Wye catchment to protect the river, calling for a cut in the overall number of birds and the exporting of manure out of the area.
However, Powys county council is still approving intensive poultry units in the catchment. Last year, Fish Legal challenged a decision by Powys to approve a unit at Wern Haelog near Builth Wells, housing 90,000 chickens, but lost the case.
Last week, the Welsh government sent a holding direction to Powys county council to prevent it approving a new industrial poultry unit, also near Builth Wells, which would house 100,000 chickens at any one time. Welsh ministers will now decide whether to ‘call in’ the application, and rule on the chicken farm at government level.
The Welsh environment agency, Natural Resources Wales, recently accepted publicly that poultry manure is harming rivers in the Wye area. In its core management plan for the River Wye, approved in September, the regulator states that “spreading of manure from intensive poultry units” is causing pollution, and that these operations are largely “outside of regulatory control”.
A coalition of environmental groups, including River Action and Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, has previously called for a planning moratorium on the construction of new intensive livestock production units in the Wye catchment.
In January 2022, the Environmental Audit Committee published its “Water quality in rivers” report, highlighting the impact of intensive poultry production on the Wye, and recommending that “new poultry farms should not be granted planning permission in catchments exceeding their nutrient budgets”.
The Welsh government has played a role in driving the growth of poultry units by handing out millions in grants and encouraging farmers to diversify into poultry farming. Yet in 2018, its chief planner wrote to the heads of all local planning authorities to remind them to “fully consider the effects of intensive agricultural development when determining planning applications”. The letter stressed the risks to sensitive habitats and the need to consider the “cumulative impacts” of such developments.
The Welsh first minister, Mark Drakeford, called a “river pollution summit” at the Royal Welsh Show last summer to discuss the phosphorus pollution of rivers in Wales, reiterating the role of regulators and government in improving water quality.
The Welsh minister for climate change, Julie James, was at the Cop15 biodiversity summit in Montreal last month, where she stated her commitment to nature recovery and tackling phosphorus pollution in rivers. An insider told the Guardian that the decision on calling in the latest Builth Wells plan is likely to fall on James’s desk.
The Welsh minister for rural affairs, Lesley Griffiths, told Guardian columnist George Monbiot in his 2021 documentary Rivercide that she would consider closing intensive poultry units in sensitive catchments like the Wye, if that was necessary.
The writer Robert Macfarlane, whose forthcoming book will be about rivers, implored the Welsh government to call in the application, writing in a tweet: “Many, many eyes are watching this. A crucial moment in the life (or death) of the Wye.”
Dr Christine Hugh-Jones, from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, said: “We can’t believe Powys county council are still approving more intensive poultry units after all the information gathered about their damaging impacts on rivers and air quality.”
Chairman of River Action, Charles Watson, said: “Whether or not the Welsh government decide to call in this ecocidal proposal to build another massive intensive poultry unit in the Wye catchment will define for ever their environmental record. It is now time for Mark Drakeford to intervene personally and show voters that his recent stated commitment to tackle the blight of river pollution across Wales is not just hollow rhetoric.”
A Welsh government spokesperson said: “The Welsh ministers issued a direction on 5 January in relation to the planning application. The direction prevents the grant of planning permission until the Welsh ministers have assessed whether or not the planning application should be called in or not. Such directions are issued routinely where the Welsh ministers are considering call-in.
“The Welsh ministers cannot comment further on this matter, as to do so may prejudice any future planning decision they may make in relation to the site, and may affect any legal proceedings.”