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Wye Valley

River Wye catchment area landowners, businesses and clubs may have legal claim for damages against chicken producers for pollution

Law firm Leigh Day has launched a legal claim potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds to compensate thousands of people living in the Wye catchment.

Posted on 20 March 2023

*Update 19 March 2024: This claim has now launched, click here to view latest press release and to find out more about the claim. 

It is believed that people whose property lies within the River Wye catchment area have a good prospect of bringing a civil claim against companies involved in the production of poultry in the area.

The River Wye catchment crosses Powys and Herefordshire and has been at the forefront of the expansion of the chicken industry in the UK and researchers estimate the area houses 20 million or more birds at any one time, often in very large poultry units. The largest poultry processor is Avara, which reportedly processes two million birds a week in its Hereford plants alone.

Other producers supplied by chicken rearing operations in the Wye Catchment area include Noble Foods.

It is alleged that the high intensity farming is badly affecting the water quality of the River Wye to which landowners and others have a right under common law.

A separate legal claim against the Environment Agency, citing its failure to enforce the rules governing the amount of organic manure and artificial fertiliser that can be spread on agricultural land from which water runs off and leaches into the River Wye has been issued in the High Court.

Landowners, businesses, wildlife organisations and clubs such as swimming, angling and water sports organisations may have the right to use the watercourse and the right to receive water in its natural state without undue interference in its quality or quantity. 

The civil claim is likely to allege that poultry producers generating significant quantities of phosphorous-rich manure which leach into the soil and into the river are, among other things, raising phosphorous levels which cause algal blooms which in turn cause biodiversity loss. The entitlement to clean free-flowing water courses means the landowners would have, among other potential claims, a nuisance claim against the chicken producers.

The civil claim is being investigated by a team led by Leigh Day partner Oliver Holland.
The deterioration in the state of the River Wye has been well documented and resulted in the public law claim that was issued this week. That claim explained that:
  • The Wye was designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to protect the river’s once-famous extensive Ranunculus river weed beds. However over 90 per cent of the river’s Ranunculus has now been lost, smothered by the algal blooms which means the river is not meeting the SAC conservation status specified by the Habitats Directive. In June 2020, a thick algal bloom extended for over 140 miles, almost the entire length of the river.
  • A study published in May 2022 by the University of Lancaster, Re-focusing Phosphorus use in the Wye Catchment (RePhoKUs Study) concluded that 60-70 per cent of the river’s total phosphorus load now comes from agriculture and an excess load of 3,000 tonnes of phosphorus is still being added to the river catchment area each year. This excess is accumulating at a rate equivalent to 17kg of phosphorus per hectare when the national average is 7kg per hectare.
Landowners who may be able to join the potential civil claim against large-scale chicken producers may have previously enjoyed abundant quality fishing and bathing in the stretch of the River Wye that their land borders. It is likely that they will have experienced a severe loss of that amenity.

River Action, the charity which campaigns against the pollution of the UK’s rivers, is supporting the civil legal claim. Chairman and founder Charles Watson said:

“In addition to the failure of our environmental protection agencies to protect the Wye from the impact of agricultural pollution, the causes of the collapse of the river go much further. It is our belief that a number of major agricultural processing companies, who have profited hugely from the rapid growth of intensive poultry production, should have been more than aware of the environmental damage their supply chains have inflicted on the river.” 

Leigh Day partner Oliver Holland said:

“The pollution of the River Wye has reached such an extent that some predict it will suffer irreversible harm within a couple of years. Local businesses, landowners, wildlife groups and sports organisations all recognise the decline of this special natural environment. The work of dedicated researchers and conservationists has revealed the acute harm caused to the river, and as a result, to those who live in its catchment. We believe poultry producers have a case to answer for their role in bringing this deplorable situation about. We urge all those who think they may have been impacted by this urgent issue to contact us.”
Anyone who thinks they might have been affected in the way described can contact Nicholas Smith at Leigh Day on nsmith@leighday.co.uk, call 020 7650 1200 or complete our short form to register your interest in the claim. 
Oliver Holland
Corporate accountability Diesel emissions claims Group claims Modern slavery

Oliver Holland

Oliver specialises in international cases involving multinational corporations where environmental harm or human rights abuses have been alleged

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