Campaigners are calling for a halt to new intensive farms in the River Wye catchment as part of efforts to protect the area from agricultural pollution.

The area, covering 400,000 hectares (nearly 1 million acres) in England and Wales, is considered an important landscape, and the river and its tributaries are home to many species of fish, birds and mammals.

But it suffers from high phosphorus levels due to agricultural pollution, causing algal blooms that harm or kill plants, marine and wildlife and damage the wider natural web.

Campaign charity River Action warns that to save the river and its tributaries from environmental damage caused by intensive farming, a mandatory nutrient management plan must be implemented with immediate effect.

It is calling for measures including a moratorium on new intensive agricultural units for poultry, cattle and pigs and expansion of existing farms in the catchment.

It is also calling for mandatory continuous 10-metre wide buffers of land between waterways and farming, with funding available to farmers to create the strips through nature-friendly farming schemes.

County Times: A fisherman described seeing a "grey streak" of sewage flowing down the River Wye

All chicken litter from intensive poultry sheds needs to be taken out of the catchment, while free range egg farms must implement measures to protect water courses from run-off with natural solutions, it says.

It also says smaller units need to be brought within the scope of environmental regulations, and there should be additional funding by the UK and Welsh governments for inspections and an annual audit of farms.

The call comes after a report from Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warned that intensive livestock and poultry farming was putting enormous pressure on particular catchments including the Wye.

As many as 20 million chickens are being reared there and their waste may be raising the river’s phosphorus levels, the EAC report said, with planning permission for new units granted without an assessment of the cumulative impact.

It called for each catchment to have a nutrient budget, with work from all sources to be reduced until it does not exceed the capacity of the river to handle it.

New poultry farms should not be given planning permission in catchments exceeding their budget, the MPs urged.

Charles Watson, founder and chairman of River Action said: “The River Wye is one of Great Britain’s most iconic rivers.

County Times: The River Wye, near Hay-on-Wye (Picture: David Jones)The River Wye, near Hay-on-Wye (Picture: David Jones)

“The speed and scale of its environmental collapse is a national scandal, as highlighted in the recent Environmental Audit Committee’s report, and one which is indicative of this country’s total neglect of our freshwater environments.

“With many now fearing the river has just a few years left before it is irreparably damaged, it is time for all parties to accept that urgent action is needed.

“While the initiatives of a number of local farmers to reduce phosphate emissions are to be applauded, only a comprehensive catchment-wide plan, backed by uncompromising regulatory enforcement, will save the river.”

James Hitchcock, chief executive of Radnorshire Wildlife Trust, added: “There is now no time left for further endless talks about voluntary, consensus-led self-regulation.

“The wildlife of the River Wye is slipping away. A catchment-wide plan involving scientists, land managers, industry leaders and conservationists, and managed by better resourced Welsh and English environmental protection agencies is the only way to save our river.”

An Environment Department (Defra) spokesman said: “We are updating a comprehensive plan aimed at achieving environmental targets around the River Wye.

“We are allocating more funding to help farmers reduce pollution, and we have set up a cross-government taskforce which will identify methods for sustainable development around the river.

“Environment Minister Rebecca Pow will be visiting the River Wye to discuss these issues with the local community later this week.

“Environment Agency teams will also be increasing farm visits around the river, focusing on high-risk locations and previously non-compliant businesses.”