‘Shocking failure’: River Wye health status downgraded to worst category

The river Wye, and its tributary the river Lugg, have been downgraded to an “unfavourable-declining” status, the worst category for a protected waterway, following an official assessment

The poor ecological condition of the river Wye, which flows from mountains in Wales to meet the Severn in England, has made headlines in recent years

In its latest assessment by the regulator, Natural England, which looked at levels of Atlantic salmon, aquatic plants, native white clawed crayfish, and water quality, the river was found to be “unfavourable - declining” on each metric except water quality. 

The river Lugg, a tributary of the Wye, which flows from Radnorshire in Wales to Herefordshire, was also tested and also found to be in an “unfavourable - declining” condition. 

Natural England area manager for the West Midlands, Emma Johnson, said that “at least one interest feature” in both the Wye and the Lugg are showing declines. She added that this meant that despite the “significant efforts of many stakeholders”, the SSSI condition status for the Wye and Lugg is no longer “unfavourable-recovering” but “unfavourable-declining”.

The news comes after ENDS Report revealed that the percentage of water habitats in protected sites in an “unfavourable declining condition” has doubled in three years, with the number of sites classed as “favourable” also declining across the board.

Johnson continued: “Any deterioration of river health is worrying for all of us who share a love for our wonderful rivers. 

“This updated assessment does not indicate a sudden decline or single change in the health of the Wye and Lugg; it has come about as the result of changing agricultural and industrial practices, climate change, urbanisation and a growing population over recent decades.” 

Natural England highlighted that a full two-year assessment is planned to commence in 2024, but this small-scale assessment was carried out in the interim. 

Joan Edwards, director of public affairs at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “That the Wye is in even worse condition now will come as no surprise to the people that love and live near it. 

“But this new admission represents a shocking failure by the agencies and authorities in Wales and England that are supposed to protect this once beautiful river.”

Edwards added that the “authorities must enforce the law wherever the causes of pollution are clear”. 

She continued: “It’s time to prevent more chicken sheds from being built and ensure that all farmers are rewarded for nature-friendly, cleaner food production methods.”

Jamie Audsley, chief executive of Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, said that current approaches to protecting the Wye have “failed”. 

Audsley said that the government must set out a new plan to protect the Wye which includes governments, regulators, farm businesses and others, to “ensure a consistent approach across England and Wales”.

Founder and chair of River Action UK, Charles Watson, said that the bad status of the river was not a surprise but that he was shocked that “regulators are only waking up to the crisis on the Wye so late in the day”.  

He added: “Any local environmental or citizen science group could have confirmed this situation two to three years ago when the devastating algal blooms first hit.”

Environment secretary Thérèse Coffey held a roundtable meeting with local farmers, environmental groups, MPs and the Welsh government in Hereford on Tuesday to discuss their concerns.  

However, campaigners have raised concerns about the selective audience. River Action UK vice chairman and Wildfish vice president Feargal Sharkey described it as “yet another totally pointless round table saddled with a carefully invited audience, one blatantly and deliberately selected so as not to criticise ministers”.

Coffey said: “The river Wye is clearly struggling and it is vital that we turn the tide on its decline. As I set out in our Plan for Water, we need local plans catchment by catchment, community by community to tackle issues that are affecting water quality. Bringing people together from the local communities, it is clear we have a common goal.”

The Wildlife Trusts are convening their own Wye Catchment roundtable on 17 July.