An environmental group formed to tackle river pollution has called for action against major agricultural suppliers and producers to clean up supply chains that damage waterways.

River Action UK, whose board includes Feargal Sharkey, former environment minister Lord Benyon, environmentalist Ben Goldsmith, journalist George Monbiot and former consultant Charles Watson as chair, was formed in the face of concerns about the decline of UK waterways.

Following the admission by the Environment Agency that funding cuts have prevented it carrying out enforcement work and prosecutions, River Action UK said it wants to “fill the vacuum” by holding agricultural polluters to account.

Watson said: “It was with shock and disbelief to see the Environment Agency (the very regulatory body tasked to protect our rivers) admit recently that it was unable to monitor agricultural pollution – and that no penalties had been imposed on a single one of the hundreds of proven polluters. It is in this absence of effective regulation that we have launched River Action.”

The group’s first focus is the egg production industry in the River Wye catchment, which contributes to the ecological deterioration of the river. It has called for the UK’s biggest egg producer, Noble Foods, to provide evidence on processes for preventing nutrient run-off and details of spending and action to tackle river pollution.

“We believe that the time has come for the large agri-businesses that procure product from our farmers and supply our retailers to assume their fair share of the responsibility for cleaning up agricultural pollution,” Watson said.

“These are often large profitable business – who without exception proclaim publicly their commitment to responsible and sustainable business practices. River Action intends to hold them to account.”

Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) calculated that, as of July 2020, the counties of Shropshire, Herefordshire and Powys contain 500 farms with a total of 1,420 intensive poultry units/sheds, containing over 44 million birds. Environmental groups warned that chicken excrement, which is rich in phosphates, together with other chemicals from the units cause algal blooms and lead to a two-fold increase in phosphate levels in the river.

A report by Natural Resources Wales published in December 2020 showed the Wye failed two-thirds of NRW’s targets for phosphorus concentrations.

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