A huge legal claim is being made against one of Herefordshire’s largest firms over the pollution in the river Wye.

It is alleged that poultry producer Avara Foods is responsible for damage to the river and its tributaries which it should clean up, as well as paying “hundreds of millions of pounds” to people and businesses impacted by it, according to law firm Leigh Day. 

Leigh Day is bringing the civil claim in hopes of reducing the pollution in the river.  The river Wye area is now thought to house at least 23 million birds at any one time, around four-fifths of which are processed by Avara, a major supplier to Tesco.

This gives rise to large amounts of phosphorus-rich manure which can leach into the soil and into the river if spread on fields as a fertiliser, leading to lethal “blooms” of algae.

Avara says it no longer sells poultry manure to farms in the area, but instead ships it out to other parts of the country instead.

Leigh Day claims that Avara’s “industrial-scale chicken farming has been the overwhelming cause of phosphorus pollution which is damaging the river”.

Those who live around the river Wye across a wide area of Herefordshire, Monmouthshire and Powys – potentially tens of thousands of people – can still join the legal claim for “private and public nuisance”, Leigh Day says.

As well as property owners, this could include swimmers, canoeists, walkers, anglers, clubs and leisure businesses who could also have been affected by nuisance from living near chicken farms, such as smells, insects and noise.

Among claimants is Hereford resident Peter Redding, 55, a keen “coracler” who used to paddle his ancient craft on the river after work. An activity he says benefitted his mental health.

“But now I find I get off the river angry,” he said. “Rather than seeing sparkling pebbles under the water, all we see now is grey sludge. Now if I see kids on the river I tell them to get off.”

Leigh Day is also pursuing separate legal action on behalf of campaign group River Action against the Environment Agency, claiming it failed to enforce its own rules regarding run-off from farms in the Wye area.

Avara Foods has now responded to the claim and hit back at a legal moves against the company and it’s pollution to the river Wye.

The Hereford-based poultry firm, a major supplier to Tesco, said law firm Leigh Day’s civil claim against it, involving multiple claimants, was “a year-old, opportunistic attempt to profit from a serious environmental issue”.

“It has no merit and is not supported by evidence or expert opinion,” its spokesperson said.

“It ignores the long-standing use of phosphate-rich fertiliser by arable farms as well as the clear scientific data showing the issue of excess phosphorus considerably pre-dates the growth of poultry farms in the Wye catchment.”

It has been claimed that the poor state of the river Wye, now officially classed as “unfavourable-declining”, is due largely to the use of poultry manure from farms in the area as a fertiliser, leading to nutrient run-off.

“We are confident that there is no case to defend but, if forced to do so, we would pursue Leigh Day to recover any costs we incur,” Avara’s spokesperson added.

Announcing progress on its “sustainable poultry roadmap” last month, Avara chief executive Andy Dawkins said what was needed was “widespread action to address the various forms of pollution and the many root causes of decline” of the Wye and other rivers affected by pollution.