A months-long campaign to save the River Wye from spiralling pollution culminated in a protest outside the Senedd this week.

A floating coffin was delivered to the government by wild swimmer Angela Jones, who had swum into Cardiff Bay towing the grisly gift behind her. “Death of the Wye” was written on the coffin’s side.

Campaigners also left an open letter for First Minister Mark Drakeford.

“There is little doubt that the River Wye is dying,” it read.

"Everyone is seeing it and now the people want answers.

"We want the government to improve the health of the river, both for the safety of the people who swim in it, including young children, and to protect the environment in and around the water.”

Concern about pollution in the Wye, designated both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, has been mounting recently.

This week a report on UK water quality by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, “Troubled Waters”, highlighted the River Wye as a “protected site in trouble”, pointing to “widespread failure” by authorities to control pollutant levels.

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“Diffuse agricultural pollution, is widely acknowledged as a key driver of this failure,” the report noted.

“Particularly the mass expansion and approval given to unsustainable numbers of intensive poultry units in recent years.”

READ MORE: Farming union appoints lawyers to fight Welsh Government anti-pollution laws

Of the 850million chickens reared for meat in the UK every year, approximately 20million are reared on farms in areas around the River Wye, many of them “Intensive Poultry Units”- battery farms, or vast sheds for “free-range” egg hens. Powys Council alone has approved 156 IPUs in the past five years, with another 21 applications in process at the time of writing.

The vast quantities of chicken faeces produced by these farms are used for muck-spreading in the area – the practice of using manure as fertilizer for farmed crops. Poultry manure is valued for its high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous, but this quality, scientists and campaigners say, is very bad news for local wildlife.

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Andrew McRobb, Director and Trustee of countryside charity CPRE Hereford explains: “What we have here is a very peculiar, perfect storm, in as much that we've got agriculture on very silty, soft soil.

“When manure is put on it and it rains, it sheds.

“You've probably seen, in heavy rain, the brown rivers that appear across hedges and roads and everything - all that takes topsoil and fertiliser and manure into the streams, which again, are all feeding into the rivers.”

Last September Wales Environmental Link, a network of environmental organisations, warned that wildlife relying on the river’s ecosystem may soon be permanently affected, calling on authorities to halt approval on new IPUs until the ecological harm caused by existing poultry farms is reduced.

The issue was also covered in Rivercide, a recent documentary produced by journalist and environmental activist George Monbiot.

The National Wales: George MonbiotGeorge Monbiot

Climate breakdown, Mr McRobb fears, will continue to exacerbate the Wye’s problems, as heatwaves, storms and flooding become more frequent.

“Climate change is a big factor.

“If you go back in time, lots of planning applications referred to a ‘one in 100 years’ rainstorm.

“Well, those rainstorms are coming so regularly now - very intense thunderstorms, where you're getting large amounts of water falling in a small area in a short space of time.

“If you again, go back, I don't know, forty or fifty years, much of the land would have been under a different type of agriculture.

“You'd have seen orchards, pastures, and of course, all of those would have held the soil together.

“Now we've got a lot more arable farming, with potatoes and maize for anaerobic digesters - you've got bigger machinery, which is compacting the soil, so it's not absorbing the water as well.

“They’re all small things, but they’re working up to a significant issue.”

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One of the issues caused by high phosphorous levels is the growth of algal bloom, which appears as a thick green slime often seen in ponds and rivers.

 “In summer you get low-flows of water, you get intense sunshine - and if there's phosphate-rich water, algal bloom is in its element,” Mr McRobb adds.

“It covers the river, it cuts out sunlight, and so all the plants beneath it - and indeed, the life beneath it - is put into darkness.”

When the algae die off and rot, the decomposition process depletes oxygen levels in the water, killing off plants and aquatic wildlife in turn.

The National Wales: Algal bloom appears as a thick green slime on bodies of waterAlgal bloom appears as a thick green slime on bodies of water

This spells danger, Mr McRobb says, for the salmon, trout, otters and waterbirds that call the Wye home.

“Ten years ago, one of the most striking things about the Wye would’ve been the Ranunculus, which is the ribbon-like plants that you'd see flowing down the middle of the river, beautiful white flowers, mayflies on them - it's one of the things that cygnets feed on.

“None of that exists now.

“This is a slow death, that's so obvious to anyone that's looked at the river over a period of time.”

In what they see as an absence of appropriate action by authorities, the campaigners have set up a citizen scientist' project.

READ MORE: Wild swimmers collect water samples for microplastics study

Ordinary members of the public are trained to collect water samples from the Wye, which are then sent off for analysis. This allows for more consistent monitoring of the damage done by pollutants.

“We started out hoping to have fifty to 100 volunteers, but we've actually got 450,” Mr McRobb says.

“We've been completely surprised and delighted that so many people have come forward to be part of this project.

“We're one of a number of different groups who are doing this. There's Friends of the Upper Wye, there’s the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales.

“In total, we're probably at around about 800 volunteers.”

Farmers’ Unions have previously pushed back at the idea that poultry farming is the main factor behind this “slow death” of the Wye, pointing instead to the sewage dumping practices of Welsh Water.

Data from Welsh Water shows that one of their storm drains in Hay-on-Wye dumped raw sewage into the river for over 435 hours in 2020. Another in Newbridge-on-Wye dumped sewage for 233 hours, while a wastewater treatment works near the river in Cilmery, Builth Wells, dumped sewage for an eye-watering 1,175 hours.

Whether or not poultry farms are truly to blame, Mr McRobb believes farmers can work together with campaigners to improve the Wye’s chances.

“I think most family farms do want to do the right thing and do want to be environmentally friendly.

“I think it is the large agricultural business that will need more pressure.

“But that's why part and parcel of what we're doing is to now look at the supermarkets, because there's nothing like business pressure.

“We think that consumer pressure will actually affect these larger businesses, but they will fight long and hard to retain profitability over environmental good.

“It’s a systemic issue that we have to change - by and large globally, large agri industry is causing the issues, affecting wellbeing for the whole of the planet.”

You can check pollution in your local river with this interactive map from The Rivers Trust.

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