On the banks of the River Wye on the border between England and Wales, Pat Stirling throws a plastic measuring jug attached to a rope into the water.
Up and down the river, a team of 250 others have been doing the same, hoping to save it from an unfolding environmental crisis.
“The river is going down,” Stirling told AFP between tests. “The next thing is it’s partially dead, and then it’s completely dead.”
The researchers say that after years of being ignored, their data has finally forced recognition of the problem of pollution often caused by chicken manure.
The Wye Valley and its winding river in particular inspired the romantic poet William Wordsworth, who praised it in the 1798 poem “Tintern Abbey”.
The River Wye stretches 250 kilometers (155 miles) from its source in central Wales to the mouth of the River Severn, traversing stunning countryside.
But in 2020, signs are emerging that the river and its rare wildlife are under threat.
Stirling, 43, a carbon footprint consultant from Australia, said people had noticed the normally smooth stones on the river floor had become “sealed”.
Bird and insect life dwindled and fishermen noticed that fish were struggling to grow to larger sizes.
Most obvious is the disappearance of the Water Crowfoot, a flowering aquatic plant that once filled the river.
First thoughts turned to the nearby sewage treatment plant.
But since nothing has changed in the way the factory operates, the locals conclude that it is no more polluting than it used to be.
“You can take a picture of the sewage flooding, but what you can’t take a picture of is the horrific amounts of animal manure coming out of the intensive poultry units,” Stirling said.
A study of planning applications on both sides of the border noted the huge number of poultry units that have sprung up along the river in recent years.
Activists estimate that there are now 20 million birds farmed in the River Wye region in more than 760 units.
The units supply a chicken processing plant run by Avara Foods in Hereford, which a decade ago won a huge contract to supply supermarkets to UK giant Tesco.
After one incident of contamination was reported, Stirling investigated and found “this stench and this really disgusting stuff everywhere”.
“It was a huge mistake,” he said. “I took samples and they came from a certain farm.”
Manure produced by chicken coops contains high levels of the essential nutrient phosphorous, excess amounts of which can impair water quality.
The manure is either spread over farmland and then washed into the river by rain or into the river directly from the ground where it is dropped by free-range chickens.
Paul Weather, a scientist at Lancaster University, told MPs last year that phosphorus levels in Wye were “nearly 60 percent above the national average”.
Conservation watchdog Nature England, which advises the government, in May downgraded the river’s water quality rating, after dropping important species such as Atlantic salmon and white-clawed lobster.
Sterling said he believes the rating update to an “unfavorable drop” happened solely because of the hype generated by activists and “citizen scientists” like himself.
He welcomed the authority’s interest, but added: “We also know that they would never have done anything if we had not participated in the test.”
He said that if the river is to avoid the lower two categories – “partially destroyed” or “destroyed” – the authorities need to urgently pull the right “levers”.
Some signs are positive.
In a letter to farmers this month, Avara Foods explained that contracts would be changed so that their manure could not be sold within the Wye catchment area.
She said her goal is to ensure that “our supply chain is not part of the problem by 2025”.
The company told AFP that although it will play its part in “mitigating the impact of our supply chain”, Avara Foods is not a “direct polluter”.
“Farms in our supply chain use or sell poultry manure … but we are aware of the potential impact this could have,” she added.
Stirling said he believes Avara’s new position is linked to a lawsuit in the United States involving its co-owner, food giant Cargill, and other poultry producers.
A judge ruled in January that the companies were responsible for the deterioration of the Illinois River in a similar way to the pollution of the Wye River.
For now, Sterling and his team of citizen scientists will continue the tests and feel hopeful they can make a difference.
“What’s being measured is being managed and we’re seeing that happen. We’ve been getting momentum because of the public data noise,” he said.
© 2023 AFP
the quote: Citizen Scientists’ Battle to Save Historic UK River (2023, 25 August) Retrieved 26 August 2023 from https://phys.org/news/2023-08-citizen-scientists-historic-uk-river.html
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