Save the River Wye : Campaigners take the government to high court

Environmentalists recently took the government to court for not upholding river regulations for farming. What does this mean for the future of Britain’s rivers?

Environmental campaigners have taken the government court as a significant move to protect the River Wye for not upholding farming and waste regulations.

“Today marked a very big milestone for River Action as the whole point of it was to make a more robust, proactive approach to holding government regulators and the whole system of environment protection to account,” said River Action activist Feargal Sharkey outside the courthouse.

Last week, River Action made a legal claim for prosecutors at Cardiff High Court that the river has become polluted with high levels of chicken manure, according to the BBC. This motion was one of the first robust approaches made by the charity towards the UK Environmental Agency in order to hold regulators accountable.

Former singer Feargal Sharkey has spent his recent years being on the front lines of the river pollution campaign with River Action (credit: River Action press team)

Feargal Sharkey, who sang with the British band “The Undertones” in the 70s, is now on the leading front of the river pollution movement. As vice chairman of River Action he actively campaigned against the pollution of British rivers and the regulations of the water industry.

Many notable British celebrities have joined in on the conversation surrounding river pollution including British comedian Joe Lycett and actor Paul Whitehouse. 

“It’s now time to drag this in front of the public and get the environmental agency under the law of the courts and hold them to account for what we believe is their totally illegal action of not doing their job properly,” said Sharkey. 

The River Wye is the fifth longest river in the United Kingdom that lodges between the border of England and Wales, being a home to many species including otters and trout fish. Last year, however, its health was downgraded by Natural England due to large declines in wildlife from agricultural and industrial practices.

Back in 2018, farming rules for water were made to minimize the risk of pollution from applications of nutrients to land and livestock management. River Action has claimed in their case  given to the judicial review that the Environmental Agency has found a loophole through this regulation and allow more river pollution to occur.

The River Wye and surrounding ecosystems have started to deteriorate recently due to runoff from farming and other food production (credit: ‘Save The River Wye’ coalition)

Leaders of the charity hope that in the event they win the legal challenge it will present a unique and urgent opportunity to force the Environment Agency to start to enforce the laws that protect the River Wye. 

“Specifically with the River Wye, we saw that there were laws and regulations that exist for this river in regards to pollution, which should have never, ever happened,” said River Action founder Charles Watson. “You are not allowed to dump or spread manure or fertilizers to the extent that it has been.”

River Action started in 2021 as a virtual campaigning group under Charles’ direction with other freelance campaigners. He and his team started to realize during their journey that it became a successful model to raise funds from other environmental organizations for campaigning. 

Their campaign ‘Save The River Wye’, was launched the same year and specifically targeted the Intensive Poultry Industry, which was recognised as one of the prime causes of the recent environmental collapse of the river.

Charles Watson began his journey with River Action back in 2021 after doing personal research on the River Wye and government reports on its water quality grading (credit: River Action press team)

“I started to see really alarming reports about the River Wye on social media because of all the runoff that was coming up and down the river from farming,” said Watson.. “From my previous work, I knew what was going on, I knew how the food industry works and the pressure that is put on farmers.”

The charity has also organized campaigns for other rivers in the country including the River Thames and created environmental projects that tackle the impact of sewage discharging. 

Protesters from different organizations came in for support of the judicial hearing outside the courthouse. Many of them were pictured holding signs, playing the drums and holding a 10-foot tall giant puppet that they named “Goddess of the Wye” in dedication of the River Wye. 

Whether they win the case or not is the least of their worries. Their main goal as the trial goes on relates back to their mission statement — applying pressure and attention to the British river crisis.

“We took the government to court last week in Cardiff for breaking its own laws. We know how agonizing the next few weeks will be as we await the judge’s decision but obviously, the odds are always stacked against us, if we were to win that case as a small charity, it will be effectively expose a conspiracy that the Department of Agriculture has constructed the regulator to not regulate,” says Watson. 

The charity has continued to be supported by many other river organizations during the trial, such as the ‘Save The River Wye’(STRW) coalition, who is an informal group of citizens on both sides of the Welsh border who do coalition work to help save the Wye and its tributaries from environmental destruction.

The group was in attendance for the court hearing and worked closely with River Action to raise awareness around their legal efforts for the River Wye. 

“We raised quite a lot of issues with Charles Watson about the river before the case came about. Our work we’ve done was local but we had him on a lot of those lines,” said STRW organizer Richard Tyler. “What his legal team has done in court has shown that they’ve got the story on rivers in this country bang on quite frankly.” 

Save The River Wye has a mission to restore the river to its former health, beauty and biodiversity (credit: Save The River Wye press team)

According to legal experts, if the Environmental Agency loses the case, it could lead to tighter enforcement of the rules on manure, including preventing any application if there is a risk of nutrients like phosphorous becoming overloaded in the soil, and, where there are breaches, potential fines or prosecutions.

This decision will mark a milestone for the river movement and will envision a brighter future for all rivers besides the River Wye in the country.

“It’s all down to people like us and the people who came out onto the streets that made a very noisy presentation in Cardiff about the River Wye. We’re not daunted by anything,” says Watson. “If we don’t prevail we’ll find another angle, and again, and again until we find something that will make a change for the better.”