Factory farming is turning this beautiful British river into an open sewer | George Monbiot

JThe longer it lasts, the deeper the mystery becomes. It is as if the public authorities had taken it into their heads to destroy the economy of an entire region. Last year a group of us tried to publicize an astonishing scandal: the impending collapse of one of Europe’s most precious and ‘protected’ rivers, the Wye, which runs through the country of Wales and England. We showed how watershed chicken factories turn this beautiful river and its tributaries into open sewers.

The two county councils through which the river mainly flows, Powys and Herefordshire, have between them granted planning permission for giant steel barns (factories, actually) which hold around 20m of birds. Many have been approved on the grounds that they are unlikely to have a significant impact on the environment. Surprisingly, at no time was the cumulative impact taken into account: each decision was taken as if it were isolated.

When a giant processing plant that could process a million chickens a week was opened in Herefordshire, the council must have known that 90 new chicken factories would have to be built nearby to supply it. Chickens cannot be moved far, or they die in transit. Yet no planning guidelines have been issued and the chicken units have not been mentioned in the county’s development plan. So when the farmers demanded to build them, the council had few legal means to stop them. An article in the journal Land Use Policy claimed that “delaying tactics by Conservative politicians” allowed new chicken units to obtain planning permission “before the policy vacuum was filled”.

Manure from this vast herd is spread by farmers on their fields, but the grass and soil cannot absorb the nutrients it contains. The surplus ends up in the river. The result is devastating: our mapping for the Rivercide documentary suggests it killed 90% to 97% of the river’s water buttercup (Buttercup) beds. Crowfoot, like mangroves in tropical seas, anchors the entire ecosystem. Any remaining life is threatened by repeated blooms (population explosions) of single-celled algae, fueled by the extra nutrients in the water.

Disasters like this are happening all over the country. But between 2013 and 2019, the number of water quality samples taken by the Environment Agency fell by 45%. It reminds me of Donald Trump’s attempt to stop Covid testing at the height of the pandemic. There is no online access to the Environment Agency’s National Pollution Sources Register: instead, as a lawyer working for a river charity discovered, you have to visit the agency office in Lichfield, where it is stored, exclusively, on an old desktop computer. The computer freezes when you try to open it. There is no way to download the documents and the printer connected to it does not work.

Chicken factories are extremely lucrative. The biggest are thought to generate profits of £1million a year. This might help explain the bullying and vandalism that I have been told by some local people who oppose it. One of them said to me: “It’s so bad now that I’m afraid that someone will be set on fire or shot.”

As chicken farmers have sought to blame the pollution on other sources, a major study published last month traced the sources of phosphate, the river’s most important killer mineral. Of the 6,500 tonnes of phosphate introduced each year into the catchment area, more than 5,000 tonnes end up in livestock feed, of which almost 80% is for chickens. Most of it is excreted. As a result, 3,000 tonnes more phosphate than plants can absorb are dumped into the Wye catchment every year.

Factories are justified in the name of employment. But, while the poultry jobs are paltry and the pay is chicken feed, they are killing the local economy. The Wye is the focal point of tourism in the area: boating, angling, swimming and camping support pubs, restaurants, hotels, shops and many other businesses. But in high season, in the middle of summer, the river stinks. If you swim in it, your skin when you come out is slimy. Who wants to play in a sewer?

Since a ruling on nutrients by the European Court of Justice in 2018, Herefordshire has had to impose a planning moratorium in the catchments of the Wye and its tributary the Lugg. That means, in effect, no new homes, and no new restaurants or other businesses that might release phosphate. But, while Herefordshire appears to have stopped issuing new licenses for chicken factories, Powys, upriver, is still handing them out.

The chairman of the Herefordshire Nutrient Management Board says four chickens produce as much phosphate as one person. If so, the new 90,000 bird factories that Powys County Council approved in March will ensure that homes for 20,000 people, in an area desperately short of housing, cannot be built. When I asked Powys for an explanation, he told me that while each claim was determined on its merits, that decision “is subject to legal challenge and it would not be appropriate to comment.”

If these chicken factories had been classified as industry rather than agriculture, they would never have been allowed. Agriculture benefits from remarkable exemptions from laws on town planning, the environment and taxation. And that’s how the government wants it to stay. Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee has recommended that planning regulations guard against new farms in over-burdened watersheds. But last month, the government rejected this proposal. No valid reason was given.

To complete this extraordinary story, a crowd-funded case will soon be heard in the Court of Appeal, brought by residents of Herefordshire’s beautiful Golden Valley, challenging the planning permission granted in 2020 for another livestock unit giantess. The case concerns whether, for legal purposes, the River Dore, which runs through the valley, is a tributary of the Wye. No one disputes that the Dore is a tributary of the Wye. But Herefordshire County Council argued that, in law if not in geography, the river does not belong in the catchment area, so no assessment under habitat regulations was needed before approve the new unit.

The entire watershed now appears to be approaching its tipping point. Like a coral reef, which can withstand one or two bleaching events, or even a few, but collapses beyond a certain point, the Wye is on the brink. It’s not dying. He is being killed.

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