British rivers at risk of becoming 'dead zones' due to chicken pollution, analysis shows

A charity says rivers in at least seven counties - where chicken production is highest - are at risk of becoming dead - devoid of fish and wildlife. ITV News West of England Reporter Sangita Lal reports

Rivers in at least seven counties across the UK are at risk of becoming dead zones depleted of wildlife if the government does not ban new factory chicken farms, according to a new Soil Association (SA) report shared with ITV News.

The charity issued the warning in the wake of its analysis, which showed the chicken meat sector in England and Wales has been rising by one million birds per month for the last decade.

Ten rivers across the UK have been identified by the SA as currently being at risk, if the number of intensive poultry units continues to rise.

As a result, the British government is being urged to introduce a UK-wide ban on new intensive poultry units and give support to farmers to enable them to leave a "damaging" and "impossible to regulate" industry.

What rivers are at risk?

The SA report says the following rivers are at risk from the boom of intensive poultry units:

  • River Thet, Norfolk

  • River Wissey, Norfolk

  • River Severn, Shropshire and Gloucestershire

  • River Tern, Shropshire

  • River Roden, Shropshire

  • River Swale, Yorkshire

  • River Witham, Lincolnshire

  • River Frome, Herefordshire

  • River Arrow, Herefordshire

  • River Vyrnwy, Powys

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So-called dead zones are created in rivers when chicken manure is washed into waterways, raising the level of phosphate.

If this level becomes too high, then it creates algal blooms, which suffocate plant life and starve wildlife that depend on it.

High phosphate levels have been blamed as the leading cause of dead zones in the River Wye, where manure runoff from a quarter of the UK's chickens feeds into.

Tom Tibbets used to swim in the river 20 years ago and now says it's becoming too polluted.

"That amount of phosphorous there in the water today won't necessarily be killing something right now, but it's this accumulation of nutrient in the river that will create blooms," he told ITV News.

"And that will deoxygenate the river overnight and that will kill things."

Soil Association Campaign Advisor Cathy Cliff authored a report - titled Stop Killing Our Rivers - which looked at the escalating number of permits for factory chicken farms in the UK.

Her study found these permits are concentrated in river catchments across England and Wales.

The research was also published alongside a new opinion poll, which showed 80% of people in Britain underestimate the proportion of chickens that are factory farmed.

Only one in five people realise nearly all - more than 90% - of meat chickens are factory farmed and only 15% of people are aware farming is the biggest polluter of UK rivers.

Despite this lack of awareness, 75% would be willing to eat less chicken if it meant cleaner UK rivers and less environmental destruction overseas.

Ms Cliff told ITV News: "We're worried that we're going to see what's happened to the River Wye happen to other rivers around the UK.

"And what we need is much more government support for nature friendly farming and that's why the Soil Association is calling for that and also for a moratorium ban on new intensive chicken farms."

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