A landmark decision on a massive poultry farm could mean the “life or death” of Riverway’s environment

The Welsh government is under pressure to shut down a massive new chicken farm in the Wye catchment, in what campaigners are calling a “defining moment in the life or death of Wye”.

The River Wye has become synonymous with an intensive poultry industry, with more than 20 million chickens in their congregation, producing more dung than the earth can absorb and turning the river the color of ‘pea soup’.

A scientific study by Lancaster University recommends an 80% reduction in poultry manure in the Wye catchment to protect the river, calling for a reduction in the overall number of birds and the export of manure out of the area.

However, the Powys County Council still approved the establishment of intensive poultry farming units in the complex. Last year, Fish Legal challenged a decision by Powys to approve a unit at Wern Haylog near Builth Wells, housing 90,000 chickens, but lost the case.

Last week, the Welsh government sent a directive to Powys County Council to prevent it from 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 invoke the application, and make rulings on the chicken farm at government level.

The Welsh environment agency, Natural Resources Wales, recently agreed publicly that poultry manure is harming rivers in the Wye region. In the River Wye’s Basic Management Plan, approved in September, the regulator states that “spreading of manure from intensive poultry units” causes pollution, and that these operations are largely “out of regulatory control.”

A coalition of environmental groups, including River Action and the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, have previously called for a planning moratorium on building new intensive livestock production units in the Wye catchment.

In January 2022, the Environmental Audit Committee published its report “Water Quality in Rivers”, which highlights the impact of intensive poultry production on the Wye, and recommends that “no new poultry farms should be granted planning permission in watersheds that exceed their food budgets”.

The Welsh Government has played a role in driving the growth of poultry units by offering grants in the millions and encouraging farmers to diversify into poultry farming. However, in 2018 the Chief Planner wrote to the heads of all local planning authorities to remind them to “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 effects” of these developments.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford called a ‘River Pollution Summit’ at the Royal Welsh Show last summer to discuss phosphorous pollution of rivers in Wales, reiterating the role of regulators and government in improving water quality.

Welsh Minister for Climate Change Julie James was at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal last month, where she announced her commitment to restoring nature and tackling phosphorus pollution in rivers. An insider told The Guardian that the decision to recall Builth Wells’ latest plan is likely to fall on James’ desk.

The Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, Leslie Griffiths, told Guardian columnist George Monbiot in his 2021 documentary Rivercide that she would consider closing intensive poultry units in sensitive watersheds such as Wye, if that was deemed necessary.

Monitoring equipment, installed by Natural Resources Wales, tests the waters near Glasbury-on-Wye. Scientists have found clear evidence of contamination associated with chicken manure. Photograph: Alexander Turner/The Guardian

Writer Robert MacFarlane, whose next book will be about rivers, has appealed to the Welsh government to recall the request, Writing in a tweet: “Many eyes are watching this. A defining moment in the life (or death) of Way.”

Dr Christine Hugh-Jones, of the Protect Rural Wales Campaign, said: “We can’t believe Powys County Council is still approving more intensive poultry units after all the information that has been gathered about their harmful effects on rivers and air quality.”

River Action Chairman Charles Watson said: “Whether the Welsh Government decides to call on this proposal of ecocide to build another massive intensive poultry unit in the Wye catchment will define its environmental record forever. Now is the time for Mark Drakeford to personally step in and show voters that His recently announced commitment to tackling the scourge of river pollution across Wales is not just bunk.”

A Welsh government spokesperson said: “Welsh ministers issued a directive on 5 January in relation to a planning application. The directive prevents planning permission from being granted until Welsh ministers have assessed whether or not a planning application should be called. Such directives are issued routinely as Welsh ministers consider in the summons.

Welsh ministers cannot comment further on this matter, as doing so could prejudice any future planning decision they may make in relation to the site, and could affect any legal proceedings.

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