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Natural Resources Wales accused of failing as a regulator

18 May 2023 8 minute read
A volunteer sampling water from the river Wye. Picture: Richard Greatrex

Countryside charities have criticised Natural Resources Wales for allegedly avoiding its regulatory responsibilities in relation to rivers.

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW), the Welsh Countryside Charity, sister bodies in England and River Action UK have joined forces to challenge NRW and the English Environment Agency.

There have been countless stories recently about the dire state of rivers in England and Wales from water companies pumping untreated sewage into rivers. But in rural areas, industrialised farm factories have a large part to play in the severe decline in freshwater ecology, which will affect rivers for generations.

CPRW has repeatedly called for action to prevent the cumulative environmental impact of huge Intensive Poultry Units (IPUs).

Dr Christine Hugh-Jones from CPRW claims that NRW has been assessing IPU planning applications with an outdated set of guidelines.

She said:“Until very recently, NRW was effectively measuring IPU applications on a set of guidelines that ignored known phosphate risks. These should not have been used for several years.

Now that the Welsh Government plans to reduce nitrate-spreading allowances below those spelt out in past planning permissions, many intensive poultry farmers will not have enough land for their manure. CPRW hopes the Welsh Minister will consider introducing legal phosphate limits, too.”

In the recent BBC Paul Whitehouse series, Our Troubled Waters, Sharon Hammond, county chair of NFU Cymru for Brecon and Radnor, and operator of a 120,000 chicken IPU on the river Ithon, told Whitehouse: “Anything we apply to the ground is not allowed to be less than three metres from the river…” She showed Whitehouse the demarcation of where they had been spreading the phosphate-rich slurry, and he remarked: “You see, that seems quite close to me…” The trouble is, it is far too close. The Welsh Government regulations say no spreading should take place within 10 metres of a watercourse.


Dr Hugh-Jones said: “If NRW is expecting farms to self-regulate but even their leaders don’t know what the regulations are, what hope is there for our rivers?

“If NRW doesn’t have the capacity to regularly inspect farms and enforce regulations properly, then what is the point of having it in this role? Is it getting the right support from the Welsh Government?”

Charles Watson, founder and chair of River Action UK, said the regulators had been asleep at the wheel: “When the eventual public inquiry into the pollution of one of Britain’s most iconic rivers takes place, the industrial scale dumping of manure across the Wye Catchment by the intensive livestock industry will clearly be cited as the prime cause of this magnificent river’s tragic decline,” he said. “However, the prime conclusion of any such exercise will be the scandal of how this was ever allowed to happen in the first place.

“Our environmental regulators on both sides of the border have basically been asleep at the wheel as one of Europe’s largest single concentrations of intensive poultry production has been allowed to be assembled in a supposedly highly protected river catchment over such an incredibly short period of time.”

NRW responded with a statement that said: “Improving water quality in our rivers and on our coast is one of our biggest priorities, and we are working with key stakeholders across industries to reduce pollution sources.

“Through our work on the Wales Better River Quality Taskforce we are assessing the performance of overflows and tightening our regulation. We are using the evidence and data we have to oversee vital improvements and investments made by the water companies.

“We are working in partnership through Nutrient Management Boards to address phosphate pollution and conserve our most precious Special Area of Conservation (SAC) rivers, as well as restoring our iconic rivers through our flagship Four Rivers for LIFE and Dee LIFE projects.

“We are now planning a compliance and enforcement programme of high-risk agricultural activities across Wales, after securing additional funding from the Welsh Government. This will focus on farms producing high levels of organic manures, or importing organic manures which includes digestate, biosolids and other wastes recovered to land. We will map out these high-risk activities and identity hotspot areas across Wales to guide the deployment of staff.

“NRW will shortly be embarking on a recruitment drive to find employees that are suited to taking on these new permanent contract roles. These officers will lead on the compliance and enforcement Control of Agricultural Pollution Regulation inspections on sites where higher risk activities are taking place.

“Preventing incidents from occurring in the first place is our ultimate goal and is the best thing for the Welsh environment. By working with companies and individuals to do the right thing in the first place, we avoid environmental damage, costly investigations and court cases, allowing us to use our limited resources on more positive action.

“In 2021 we published our compliance assessment of phosphorus in SAC rivers which provided catchment-scale evidence that many water bodies were failing to meet revised water quality targets for phosphorus. Excess phosphorus in our rivers comes from a range of diffuse and point sources including agriculture.

“There are water quality risks from development proposals involving an increase in livestock numbers, including IPUs, where additional manures are generated and spread to land. As a result of our recent and ongoing work on the phosphorus issue, we would now expect a development planning application for a new intensive poultry unit to be able to demonstrate, with certainty and for the life of the development, that there are legal and enforceable measures in place to secure the fate of manures in a manner that prevents deterioration of SAC rivers.


Following the broadcast of BBC’s Our Troubled Waters, NRW wrote to the farmer to remind them that spreading needs to take place 10 metres away from the river and provided a link to the relevant Welsh Government guidance document. The farmer replied to say that in the programme they were showing Paul Whitehouse the cultivation line from the last time they reseeded the field, which was prior to 2021, rather than identifying where they spread manure.

“Extensive work has been and continues to be carried out to ensure farmers are aware of the regulations. The Welsh Government has led the roll-out of communication to farmers and other appropriate stakeholders to ensure they are aware of the new regulations and what it means for their farms. This has been supported by appropriate partner organisations, including NRW, and in particular Farming Connect – an organisation funded by the Welsh Government and with the leading role in supporting farming businesses. It has engaged with thousands of farmers via meetings, workshops, digital surgeries and more.

“NRW has environment teams ready to respond to any reports of non-compliance with the regulations 24 hours a day. We actively encourage people to report incidents via our incident line (0300 065 3000) or to report online. This includes farmers self-reporting any issues that put our land and waterways at risk.

“Where there is sufficient evidence, we enforce the regulations as per our NRW enforcement and sanctions policy. This can include: farm inspection; providing advice and guidance to bring farmers back into compliance; issuing warning letters and where there is significant impact and strong evidence, we will prosecute. We have had several successful prosecutions for agricultural pollution in recent years.

“We are committed to improving the condition of the River Wye and will use all evidence to improve our understanding of the issues and to use all legal and regulatory routes to support the conditions of Welsh rivers.

“The factors contributing to pollution in the Wye catchment are complex with a range of different sources, including from farming as well as the water industry, home discharges and run-off from roads and urban areas. It is because of this complexity that no one organisation has all the answers to solving the issues – they require cooperation from everyone who has an interest in restoring the Wye, and this is why we’re working collaboratively through the Wye Nutrient Management Board.

“We are working hard at all levels to improve conditions in the Wye and in rivers across Wales including working with water companies to improve standards, providing best advice and guidance to farmers and working with local planning authorities on how to reduce the impact of developments in sensitive catchments. We are a regulator and ensure that others comply with their permits and licences and enforce when necessary. In addition, we carry out practical work to improve river conditions as well as providing partnership funding for others to do so too.”

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1 year ago

10 metres is still too close IMO

Peter Cuthbert
Peter Cuthbert
1 year ago
Reply to  Vyvyan

I think the team at NRW ought to read Georg Monbiot’s book “Regenesis” which discusses the spreading of manure and the damage it does to ecosystems. Basically manure is a bad product becuse it fails to feed the plants when they need it, or if enough is used, it simply sits about and then leaches off to damage rivers.

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