The River Wye Action Plan: analysis

How does Defra’s latest action plan impact land managers and the future of this important river catchment? CLA Land Use Policy Adviser Matthew Doran explains more

Last Friday (12 April), Defra published the River Wye Action Plan, an eagerly awaited strategy to tackle the declining health of this beleaguered river. To the frustration of most stakeholders, including the CLA, Defra’s plan is lacklustre.

Whilst it is good to see support directed to reducing farming’s impact, little, if any, of this is new funding, with the majority coming from the already-committed Agricultural Transition Plan, including £35m for poultry manure incinerators. Funding which farmers and land managers can access is also restricted to England, so given the length of time this plan has been gestating, it is a disappointing outcome for many.

Looking at it more positively, however, the plan endorses an argument which the CLA has repeatedly made – that government’s role in tackling agricultural pollution hotspots should be to support farmers to transition their nutrient management, rather than to radically intervene in their businesses. The ringfenced funding for the Wye demonstrates that Defra can spatially target funding from the Agricultural Transition Plan budget to areas with acute need. This is an important model, which we hope Defra can repeat elsewhere.

What does the plan propose?

Defra has committed to nine actions. It will:

  1. “Appoint a locally based River Champion” (named as Anthea McIntyre, the former Member of the European Parliament for the West Midlands) to establish and lead a River Wye Taskforce. This body will develop a five-to-ten-year catchment plan, implement it, and deliver pilot projects.
  2. Consult on amending the Environmental Permitting Regulations for permitted poultry farms to prohibit the export of manures to farms where this would result in excess application of nutrients for the needs of the soil and the given crop.
  3. Introduce, in their summer SFI 2024 offer, various new payments to retain more nutrients and soil in the field, such as SFI payments for buffer strips from six to 24 metres wide.
  4. Provide up to £35m in grant funding for on-farm poultry litter combustion, which will convert manures into nutrient-rich, more easily transportable ash. It will be a one-off trial.
  5. Fund up to five on-farm micro anaerobic digestors (AD) for livestock farmers in the Wye catchment.
  6. Guarantee that all Round 2 applications for the Slurry Infrastructure Grant in the Wye catchment will be approved. Natural England’s approach to planning consultations for grant-funded projects will be streamlined. The existence of some yet-to-be-announced, new permitted development rights (PDRs) are mentioned, but without further detail.
  7. Work with the ‘Wyescapes’ and ‘Wye Valley – Ridge to River’ Landscape Recovery Projects to deliver over 680ha of new species-rich habitat creation.
  8. Provide funding for two local projects in the River Lugg and the Arrow Valley.
  9. Invest in research into mitigating cross-border phosphate pollution, including a focus on legacy phosphate in the soil.

CLA analysis

The CLA welcomes Defra’s commitment to a transition to less-polluting practices, reflecting the valuable food that farmers in the Wye’s catchment produce, and the reality of phosphorous dynamics in the catchment. Discharges of phosphorous from soil are a key source of pollution, due to excess livestock manure being repeatedly applied above crop need. Heavy rainfall and soil erosion are now releasing this phosphorous into the Wye, and to reduce phosphorous on a trajectory compatible with improvement in the Wye’s health, farmers will need to make major changes. Yet, the legacy phosphorous means that even with intense action from all parties, it could still take over a decade for phosphorous levels to reduce to the agronomic optimum.

The problem is not so much the livestock themselves, but what happens to their manure and the soil which receives it. Consequently, overreaching intervention today into farm businesses, such as a Water Protection Zone, would lead to hardship for farm businesses and insolvencies, but may not clean up the Wye as expected. The CLA has repeatedly argued that that the only viable, long-term solution is a transition, underwritten with sufficient funding and support, to allow farm businesses to improve their soil conservation and riparian buffering, and invest in infrastructure to make (poultry) manure easier to transport. It is good to see Defra commit to this pathway, albeit less ambitiously and with less long-term support than the CLA would like.

The plan’s £35m fund for on-farm poultry manure combustors is significant for a single catchment. The guarantee that all Round 2 Slurry Infrastructure Grant applications will be approved on English land in the catchment is also welcome. Nevertheless, these are both one-time commitments.

Transitioning farming in the Wye will require a well-communicated pipeline of support stretching far beyond the next financial year

SFI and Countryside Stewardship will be crucial to improve watercourse buffering and reduce erosion of the catchment’s sandy and silty soils – but they will only deliver the envisaged improvement in river health with widespread uptake. For this to be successful, Defra needs to ensure the new options for summer 2024 open in a timely manner, with no hiccups in the application process. For sustained change, the next government will need to increase the total Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) budget. Crucially, the Wye’s catchment spans the English-Welsh border, whereas ELM schemes and the other grants in the plan are restricted to England. Welsh Government must confirm how it will support farmers on its side of the border to transition.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the plan mostly repackages previously committed funding, ringfencing it to a single catchment where there is acute need. Whilst discouraging for the sector as a whole to not receive new investment, Defra’s plan does shows that the department can spatially target funding to encourage uptake by reducing competition for funds. Could Defra replicate similar bespoke packages of support in other areas with entrenched challenges? We would like to see Defra extend similar spatial targeting with premium payment rates to grants for Natural Flood Management whose success depends on their location.

Going forward, the CLA will continue to engage with the various Nutrient Management Boards in the Wye Catchment, and lobby government for the requisite, long-term funding to support a fair transition for members.

Key contact:

Matthew Doran Land Use Policy Adviser - Climate & Natural Resources, London