THE excessive spreading of organic chicken manure on farmland is leading to the pollution of the River Wye, a court heard.

Anti-pollution charity River Action is seeking a judicial review against the Environment Agency (EA) after claiming it is allowing destructive levels of nutrients from organic manure to enter the river.

It is estimated that about 20 million chickens are raised in the Wye catchment at any one time – about 25% of UK poultry production.

A large amount of organic manure has been spread over the area leading to a substantial increase in levels of phosphorus in the soil.

When washed into the river by rainwater, the phosphorus causes prolonged algal blooms which turn the water an opaque green.

The High Court in Cardiff heard that statutory guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), states land managers should avoid spreading manure during a crop rotation that raises phosphorus in soil above a certain level unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so, or they have taken all appropriate precautions to prevent any diffuse agricultural pollution.

Lawyers for River Action said the EA was rigidly following the guidance at the expense of enforcing the Farming Rules for Water regulations, which prohibit applications of “organic manure or manufactured fertiliser” to farmland in a way that would raise nutrient levels above what is “needed by the crop and the soil”.

David Wolfe KC, representing the claimants, said there was “no dispute” the River Wye was in “very poor condition”.

“There is also no dispute that this is in large part due to unacceptably high levels of phosphate in the water,” he told the court.

“There is no dispute that the most significant cause of that phosphate problem is what is known as agricultural diffuse pollution.

“What is in play here is the actions of lots of individual land managers. This is not one leak but as a result of lots of individual actions by land managers.

“The activity in play here is the spreading of organic manure onto the land, particularly from very large scale chicken farms.”

Mr Woolfe said this was regulated by the Farming Rules for Water regulations, which created several offences linked to the spreading of manure on land.

“We are concerned with the large-scale shovelling of manure from large sheds full of chickens onto the land,” he added.

Opposing the renewed application for judicial review, Charles Streeten, for the EA, said what was being objected to was Defra’s statutory guidance.

“It is readily apparent that what is being taken issue with is the statutory guidance, not the interpretation of the regulations by the Environment Agency, and that is not permissible to challenge that guidance,” he said.

“The statutory guidance is valid, and the Environment Agency has to take it into account and that does not change their interpretation of the law.”

Mr Streeten said warning letters were sent out to those who may be breaching the regulations to “bring them in line” with the rules.

He rejected claims the EA did not take action and said there were 140 incidents in England which led to enforcement and around 6,000 occasions where informal advice was given.

“The Environment Agency is doing exactly what it says it will do, which is seeking to achieve legal compliance by working collaboratively with farmers and where that collaborative approach is unsuccessful escalating to take formal enforcement action,” he said.

“What this shows is that the Environment Agency know the difference between guidance and law and acts lawfully in accordance with it.”

After considering both oral and written submissions, Mr Justice Lane granted permission for a full judicial review.

He said: “Despite Mr Streeten’s submissions I consider it arguable that the policy as properly interpreted is influenced by the elements of the statutory guidance that are significantly contrary to the plain wording of the regulations to the point where that policy is arguably unlawful.

“Reading everything fairly as a whole may carry weight in due course but it doesn’t seem to me that it enables the defendant to avoid the claimant’s challenge.

“For these reasons I grant permission on all three grounds.”

The River Wye, which is a Special Area of Conservation, rises in mid-Wales and flows for 150 miles becoming part of the border between England and Wales before meeting the Severn.