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River Wye needs ‘protection zone’, say Greens and Fearnley-Whittingstall
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River Wye needs ‘protection zone’, say Greens and Fearnley-Whittingstall

The Green party and the celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall are calling for a “protection zone” to be placed around one of the UK’s most beautiful but threatened rivers and have demanded “drastic” nationwide changes to the water industry’s management and regulation.

At a wild-swimming event on the River Wye on Wednesday, Fearnley-Whittingstall and the Green party’s candidate for North Herefordshire, Ellie Chowns, both took dips, but only after measuring the level of pollution in the water.

Fearnley-Whittingstall, who is a Green party member, said: “I love swimming in rivers and the sea. It makes me angry we have to check that it’s safe before we get in.”

He said the Wye had become an “aquatic desert” with toxicity levels sometimes “off the scale”. “We should be having long strands of ranunculus [weed] drifting through the water with beautiful white flowers, dragonflies, swallows, fish rising. This river should be exploding with life. It isn’t.”

Studies have linked the decline of the Wye to intensive chicken farming on the catchment. Poultry produce large amounts of manure, which contains nutrients including phosphate. Much of this is spread on the land, which can result in the phosphate it contains entering the river.

Chowns standing in the river talking to Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has his top off.View image in fullscreen

Last year, Natural England downgraded the status of the river from “unfavourable-improving” to “unfavourable-declining”. There have been declines in key species such as the Atlantic salmon and white-clawed crayfish.

The Green party wants a water protection zone around the river to help it recover. It said it would like support for farmers over the next five-year parliament to be almost trebled to support the transition to nature-friendly farming.

Fearnley-Whittingstall said: “At the moment there are very few restrictions on how farmers dispose of basically animal muck and what restrictions there are, are essentially voluntary.

“In the Wye, the big problem is intensive chicken farming. Some farmers are engaged in a constructive conversation. A few have made that commitment to take it off site and to process it. That involves a financial commitment from the farmer and a confidence that they can get something back from the end use of that material.”

The Green party’s plans for rivers also includes the nationalisation of water companies, investing £12bn in sewage and water infrastructure, and giving the Environment Agency a £1.5bn boost to improve regulation.

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Shot taken over river of figures standing on the beach and in the river.View image in fullscreen

Among the local people who turned up to swim in the Wye off a pebble beach next to the Tresseck campsite in the Herefordshire village of Hoarwithy was Lou Le Rey, who had taken dips here for 12 years.

“We’ve noticed a massive change,” she said. “The main visible one is the lack of the ranunculus weed. In the summer you’d come down and there would be a beautiful network of leaves and white flowers all over the surface and that’s just gone now. I think the murkiness of the water has gone worse and the taste of the water has changed.”

David Gillam, chair of the Save the Wye campaign group, said: “I think a water protection zone’s definitely the way to go, because a legal framework is needed to allow us to get to grips with the pollution.” He said farmers needed not to be “bashed” but supported. “Farmers are in a tough place with changing regulations, the changing climate and supermarkets who don’t pay them enough for their produce. They need to be helped to find better ways.”

As she emerged from the river, Chowns remarked on the sliminess of the stones. And this was a good day – because it has been dry, there will have been little or no runoff from fields. “It’s refreshing, but this is an iconic river that we need to do more to protect. Having access to clean water is a fundamental human right.”

Source: theguardian.com