Therese Coffey has been accused of excluding environmental groups from a crisis meeting on saving the River Wye on the day it was officially labelled as in decline.
The “roundtable” organised by Defra brought together local and national politicians, farmers and the Welsh government, but several environmental groups that have been critical of the Government were not invited.
The meeting, aimed at “improving the state of the Wye” came as Natural England downgraded most of the river and a major tributary, the Lugg, because of falling populations of Atlantic salmon, macrophytes and native white-clawed crayfish.
The Wye, which flows through England and Wales, is one of the UK’s most significant rivers for nature and is a protected site. Campaigners have warned it is dying due to agricultural pollution from intensive poultry farming.
Both local grassroots groups and national organisations said that they had not been told about the event and that they only found out about it this weekend.
The Friends of the Upper Wye, which conducts one of England’s largest citizen science efforts in monitoring the Wye’s water quality, told i they had pressed their local MP, Jesse Norman, and Herefordshire Council for an invitation but one was not forthcoming.
“We would like to have had a voice at that table and asked the Secretary of State whether she has a plan to reduce pollution to the Wye and restore the river to health,” the group said.
River Action, which campaigns nationwide against agricultural pollution also said it had been blocked from attending the roundtable.
Charles Watson, the group’s chairman, told i: “Despite repeated requests to Defra to be included in this so called “meeting of all concerned parties” it is deeply disappointing that River Action, along with many other highly relevant environmental groups, were deliberately excluded from what seems to be predominantly a meeting of the vested agricultural interest”.
Other environmental groups privately expressed surprise at not being made aware that the event was taking place.
Defra has been asked for comment.
Only two local environmental organisations were invited to the event, which included substantial representation from local farmers and farming groups including the NFU and Avara, a major poultry supplier.
Friends of the Upper Wye and River Action have been highly critical of government inaction on agricultural pollution.
The crisis meeting coincided with Natural England’s classing of all seven sections of the Wye in England and four of the River Lugg as being “unfavourable declining”. Previously one section had been labelled “favourable” and six were “unfavourable recovering”.
The assessments are on the basis of declining wildlife and plant numbers, including the struggling Atlantic salmon. Water quality targets were not found to be failing on the Wye, but phosphate levels were close to their limits at several points.
The Lugg was in breach of safe phosphate levels.
Phosphate promotes the growth of algae and algal blooms which smother rivers and use up their oxygen, killing fish and other plant life.
The Wildlife Trusts said that the first algal blooms of the year were already appearing on the river. They warned that “without urgent help and appropriate management the river will never reach a favourable or recovering condition”.
Tom Tibbits, chair of the Friends of the Upper Wye, welcomed the reassessment from Natural England, telling ithat it was “good news” that regulators had finally acknowledged the problem.
However, he said they were “playing catch up”.
“It’s a complete failure of legislation and planning,” he said, “the river is dying, when it rains we see big spikes in pollution and that’s the hallmark sign of farming runoff.”
The Wye catchment is thought to be home to more than 20 million chickens, following a boom in intensive poultry farms. They produce immense amounts of manure which is often spread on nearby fields.
Local councils were accused of assessing each planning proposal on an individual basis without examining the broader impact.
Parts of Hereford are now subject to nutrient neutrality rules which effectively ban new homes from being built because of their impact on rivers.
Speaking of the downgrading, Ms Coffey said: “The River Wye is clearly struggling and it is vital that we turn the tide on its decline. As I set out in our Plan for Water, we need local plans catchment by catchment, community by community to tackle issues that are affecting water quality. Bringing people together from the local communities, it is clear we have a common goal.
“We do all need to work together at a greater pace and with purpose to actively support our farmers and food producers to produce food sustainably and reduce pollution.”
Ms Coffey told those farmers present that there was a wide range of support available to them from government, including funding for slurry infrastructure, free one-to-one advice on pollution and new post-Brexit subsidies that include payments for reducing runoff.