River pollution leads to Welsh demand for halt to intensive chicken farms

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As rivers in Wales deteriorate and fill with pollution, a coalition of groups has called for a moratorium on planning approval for new intensive poultry units in Powys.

The demand follows similar moves in other parts in the world, particularly the US, which has seen a growing number of calls for moratoriums on intensive farming systems.

In Wales, phosphate, nitrogen and ammonia pollution are causing serious damage to sensitive habitats, rivers and air, according to a statement from Wales Environmental Link (Wel), a network of 30 environmental and countryside organisations. “Intensive livestock rearing and inefficient storage and spreading of manures, slurries, digestate and other fertilisers are the main causes of this pollution,” the statement reads.

While “point source pollution” from large intensive chicken and pig units is regulated, says Wel, diffuse pollution, which occurs when pollutants disperse into air and waterways, is not monitored. It is the rivers that are suffering in particular, Wel says, with the River Wye “rapidly reaching the point where wildlife that relies on the Wye ecosystem may be permanently affected”.

“This summer saw algal blooms in the Wye which made it resemble a ‘pea soup’,” said James Byrne from Wildlife Trusts Wales. “The most likely cause of this is manure from livestock units which is spread onto land and then runs into rivers triggering eutrophication. This removes oxygen from the river, which then affects the entire river ecosystem, aquatic insects and everything that feeds on them including birds, water shrews and fish and otters.”

The proportion of phosphate in the lower Wye coming from agriculture has doubled in the past six years, and the river is failing on permitted levels of phosphate under the EU habitats directive: “The situation is really serious and we’re calling on authorities to take action by putting a temporary pause on determining new applications of intensive livestock units until safeguards are in place, and all current units are monitored for compliance,” said Byrne.

Wel points to the growth of intensive poultry farms (IPU) in Powys as particularly concerning. Powys Planning Authority has had 160 applications for large broiler and free-range egg units since 2015, approving approximately 134 of these. Since 2017, it has received five times as many applications as the rest of Wales.

Christine Hugh-Jones from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales said: “We estimate there are over 200 intensive chicken farms and around 10 million chickens in Powys. Over half a million chickens have been approved since the beginning of June 2020 when the algal blooms on the Wye hit the headlines. It’s pretty clear that there is a connection between the pollution from poultry farms and the state of the rivers.”

Wel are calling on the Welsh government, Natural Resources Wales and Powys council to suspend all new farms pending an investigation.

The growth of algae removes oxygen from the water and affects the entire ecosystem.

A spokesperson for Powys county council said: “As a local planning authority, the council has a statutory duty, as set out in legislation, to determine planning applications. The council is therefore unable to impose a moratorium on any type of planning application that it receives.”

In the US, senator Cory Booker has put forward the Farm System Reform Act, which would put a moratorium on large and expanding concentrated animal feeding operations. There are calls for a moratorium on intensive farming by the American Public Health Association as well as from the Iowa Alliance for Responsible Agriculture, which say that 30% of the state’s municipal water systems are susceptible to harmful levels of nitrate pollution.

A spokesperson for the Welsh government said: “A review of nutrient levels in rivers in Wales is currently being undertaken by Natural Resources Wales – if that review provided any such evidence, we would be able to consider a moratorium, but only once the review is complete. We are also working with stakeholders to develop updated national guidance to support authorities in fulfilling their planning responsibilities.

“We are also working towards a new set of agricultural pollution regulations, a draft of which was published in the spring.”

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