‘Citizen scientists make an important distinction’: the locals who proved the River Wye was polluted

A few occasions per week, a gaggle of volunteers dotted alongside the Yazor Brook, which rises in a rural catchment and flows into the River Wye at Hereford, courageous the brambles and muddy banks to take samples of the gently flowing water.

They conduct the checks on a minimum of 4 websites alongside the brook and add their outcomes on-line. They’re now amongst greater than 200 citizen scientists who repeatedly take a look at the River Wye from its supply within the Cambrian mountains to the Severn estuary, in contrast with the sporadic testing by regulators.

Anne Cottringer, 71, a former documentary-maker who lives in Hereford, takes a break every Saturday from tending her runner beans, lettuces and raspberries on an allotment to take a pattern. She then disappears right into a backyard shed to do a small battery of checks, together with monitoring for phosphate ranges and water turbidity.

Cottringer, who’s a member of the Herefordshire Wildlife Belief Yazor Brooks Restoration Mission, mentioned she began testing about two years in the past after an enchantment from the group Mates of the Higher Wye. There was rising anger over the decline within the ecological well being of the river, and campaigners wished higher proof for what they thought-about an unfolding environmental disaster.

Anne Cottringer does a take a look at in her allotment shed. {Photograph}: Adrian Sherratt/the Observer

“The truth that so many individuals are actually testing means there’s an accumulation of proof,” mentioned Cottringer. “We wish it to succeed in a tipping level so it simply can’t be ignored.”

Jane Denny, 69, who samples the brook every week within the village of Stretton Sugwas, north-west of Hereford, mentioned: “I’m heartbroken on the state of the Wye. It’s simply terrible to see it as it’s. I believed it was one thing I may do which was optimistic.”

Martin Janes, managing director of the nonprofit physique the River Restoration Centre, mentioned Pure England and the Surroundings Company didn’t have adequate assets to successfully monitor and defend the nation’s rivers, with volunteers now plugging a spot.

He mentioned: “People are taking over the banner and saying: ‘We wish a greater river system.’”

The size of the problem within the nation’s most treasured rivers methods is formidable. An evaluation by the Observer this weekend of 256 freshwater habitats on 38 river methods that are websites of particular scientific curiosity (SSSIs) discovered simply 23 (9%) are in “beneficial” situation.

Pure England, charged with defending what must be pristine areas of biodiversity, mentioned this weekend that the federal government has a goal to revive 75% of protected websites to beneficial situation by 2042, and all SSSIs could have an up to date evaluation.

Three years in the past, campaigners sounded the alarm over the decline of the River Wye in England and Wales. They warned that phosphate-rich runoff from intensive poultry farms within the grocery store provide chain was sullying the Wye’s waters and devastating the ecosystem with the unfold of thick algae blooms.


Pure Sources Wales blamed sunny climate for the proliferation of algae blooms. It mentioned there was no proof of a hyperlink between river air pollution and intensive poultry items.

Livid campaigners had been already counting the various tens of millions of chickens being housed throughout the Wye catchments within the grocery store provide chain. The Brecon & Radnor department of the Marketing campaign for the Safety of Rural Wales mapped greater than 760 hen sheds containing greater than 20 million chickens.

Huge portions of manure had been being unfold throughout farmland and spilling into watercourses throughout the Wye catchment. Within the face of an absence of efficient motion by the regulator, anglers, conservationists and native residents began to check the water.

Stuart Smith, chair of the Wye Salmon Affiliation, mentioned a small group of anglers first began testing the river in England and Wales in June 2020 due to issues over the decline of salmon, the unfold of algae and the reported deaths of cygnets.

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He said: “Traditionally, algae had been limited to the lower river, but we began to get it across the whole of the catchment.”

The tests found that phosphate levels in the water were regularly breaching guideline targets.

Gordon Green, 70, an angler and retired industrial physicist from Thornbury, Gloucestershire, works as an adviser on the association’s sampling regime and also tested farmland, showing that higher levels of phosphorus in the soil were close to poultry units. The research supporting the findings of a 2021 report by Lancaster University which concluded that chicken litter was the main source of manure-causing phosphate pollution on the Wye.

“The regulators were asleep at the wheel because this has unfolded over 30 years,” said Green. “There are catchment reviews from the mid-1990s which say the planning process needs to get a grip on poultry units and manage the spread of manure.”

Other groups began testing the water, and monitoring points spread rapidly along the river. Friends of the Upper Wye started its programme in 2021. Volunteers at the CPRE, the countryside charity, and Friends of the Lower Wye also started testing. The real-time data gathered by volunteers is uploaded by an app, and in the next few weeks will be combined for the first time on one platform. It will be called the Wye Alliance Citizen Science dashboard and is likely to be a model for volunteers on other river catchments blighted by pollution.

Tom Tibbits, chair of Friends of the Upper Wye, said: “I hope the dataset will be a resource for pinpointing places where significant action should be taken to curb pollution. Where we look, we tend to find it.”

Pat Stirling, citizen science manager of the Friends of the Upper Wye, said the volunteer testing and scrutiny of the planning process highlighted the plight of the Wye and pushed the regulators into action. He said: “We believe the citizen scientists made a difference.”

Five older women and one man on the edge of the River Wye, one dipping a plastic jug into the water
Citizen scientists from the Hereford Yazor Brooks Restoration Project, including Jane Denny, front right, in action on the riverside. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt/the Observer

It is not just volunteer conservationists who test the river but also farmers alarmed at the threat to the River Wye. David Watts, 62, who farms 350 acres near the town of Bromyard in Herefordshire, regularly tests the water and land for phosphates.

He transports chicken litter from his 40,000 laying hens out of the country and has reed beds to help filter any runoff into the Frome, a tributary of the Wye which runs across his farm. “Rivers are a lifeblood,” said Watts. “Without a healthy river, you don’t have a healthy farm. We do everything we can to protect the river.”

Natural England and the Environment Agency are working with Herefordshire council, Herefordshire Wildlife Trust, the farming community and other stakeholders to improve water quality in the Wye and reduce phosphates.

Avara Foods, the Tesco supplier which has a poultry plant in Hereford and accounts for between 12 million and 15 million chickens in the Wye catchment, published a roadmap in January to ensure its supply chain no longer contributes to excess phosphate pollution in the Wye. Campaigners want more radical action, with stricter curbs on poultry units. A spokesperson said: “Avara Foods is not a direct polluter of the Wye; however, farmers in our supply chain sell or use poultry litter as fertiliser on other land in the catchment.

“We recognise the role phosphates play in the river’s deterioration and are committed to ensuring our supply chain contributes no excess phosphates in the catchment area by 2025, through our roadmap.”

Natural Resources Wales (NRW) now acknowledges that poultry litter has caused pollution in the face of overwhelming evidence gathered by the citizen scientists, supported by university research. Gavin Bown of NRW said: “Our understanding of these issues is improving as we undertake more monitoring and analysis. NRW is committed to play our full part in improving water quality in the River Wye.”

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