The River Wye, like so many of Britain’s rivers is in a sorry state. It is suffering from decades of damage caused by poor farming practices. Phosphate pollution is a major issue stemming from intensive poultry units, excessive use of artificial fertilizers and old and poorly functioning sewage works and septic tanks. Excessive ploughing is leading to soil erosion after heavy rain. Maize, unsustainably grown for bio-digesters, is especially vulnerable to soil erosion. These are just some of the problems affecting the Wye catchment area. Herefordshire Wildlife Trust’s Andrew Nixon gives his list of what is wrong here. Helen Stace, the Trust’s director, writes about a recent act of ecosystem vandalism by a local farmer on the River Lugg. Investigative journalist Nicola Cutcher writes about pollution on the Llynfi, a Welsh tributary of the Wye. Yesterday Extinction Rebellion held a vigil on the old bridge in Hereford to draw public attention to the crisis affecting our rivers. George Monbiot, Franny Armstrong and Nicola Cutcher are crowdfunding for what I am sure will be a fascinating live documentary to be called Rivercide.
All this is about what is wrong, with just a little about some of the small things that could be done to mitigate the damage. I want us to now re-imagine the whole Wye catchment differently. We could utterly transform the whole ecosystem, producing more food while also massively benefiting wildlife. Here’s how.
Protecting and rebuilding soil is of critical importance, and the scope for solving multiple problems is immense. Gabe Brown, a farmer from North Dakota, has been a pioneer in regenerative agriculture. He has five principles of soil health: ‘no-till or minimal tillage, keeping the ground covered, diversity in plant and animal species, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and the importance of integrating animals.’ By applying these principles he has managed to increase his soil organic matter from 1.9% in 1991 to 6.1%, so increasing the rate at which water can percolate down into the soil from half an inch per hour in 1991 to eight inches per hour now. This increase in permeability massively reduces risks of both flooding and drought. The raised level of organic matter also increases fertility while sequestering carbon. Imagine if all farmland in the Wye catchment adopted these methods.
We could go further, as agroforestry pioneer Martin Wolfe demonstrated at Wakelyns farm over the last 25 years. Now several others are developing the most amazing farms utilizing agroforestry alley cropping. Outstanding among them is George Young of Fobbing in Essex. He is planting rows of the most extraordinary variety of fruit and nut trees, with a great diversity of nutrient rich grains and legumes grown in the alleys and is now integrating red pole cattle into the system. He, like most regenerative farmers, is gradually reducing all his chemical inputs and slowly converting to organic systems.
If we return to reimaging the Wye catchment where the entire area was converting to systems of organic agroforestry, with a very much greater diversity of trees and bushes, arable crops and livestock all integrated into each acre. As we did so we could close down all intensive poultry units and replace or repair all malfunctioning sewage works and septic tanks. We would then have massively reduced the risks of flooding and of drought, of pollution and of soil erosion. We could of course go further still. Many areas would benefit from rewilding. Some farms might want to follow the extraordinary example of rewilding set by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell at Knepp farm in Sussex. The reintroduction beavers would have a very positive effect, acting to slow the river, reduce erosion and create a wonderful network of habitats for more species to colonize. The Wye could once again have the biodiversity and health it had hundreds of years ago, and it could simultaneously produce more and better food than it ever has.