Griff Rhys Jones' heartbreak at how Welsh river wrecked by farm spill

My poisoned paradise! GRIFF RHYS JONES tells heartbreaking story of how stretch of Welsh river he manages was wrecked by ‘farming slurry spill’ and exposes the ugly truth behind our green posturing

  • Comedian Griff Rhys Jones bought a farm in Pembrokeshire next to a river
  • Two weeks ago farmyard slurry spilled into the water killing rare species of eels
  • Now, the river water is now stinking of excrement and horrible with dead things  

Well, they call it ‘the river’ round here but it isn’t much more than a big stream. Afon is the Welsh name. That means ‘river’, too. (Avon, Stour or even Humber — our rivers have the most ancient names in our country, and they nearly all just mean ‘river’.)

Afon rises in a bog, fed by a few springs. After a big rain, it rushes down the inside range of the high garns, the hills that define this stretch of the Pembrokeshire coast near Strumble Head, towards our farm. It has little more than two miles to go until it reaches the glorious beach at Aberbach.

Insignificant this beck may seem, but only half a mile downriver from the source, just by the chapel in the hamlet of Harmony, there is already enough water for someone to have built a set of steps going down into it. When I first saw them, I thought it an odd place to launch a boat, but these are baptismal stairs. Dear Olwen, my neighbour, was once washed of her sins at this very spot.

She wouldn’t want to be ducked in the water now. It is stinking of excrement, and horrible with dead things.

Jonny, who helps look after the place, rang me two Fridays ago when I was travelling down to the tiny farm in Trehilyn, near Trefasser, which I first saw 17 years ago and bought on impulse at an auction a few weeks later.

‘I discovered some effluent in the river today,’ he said. ‘The mill pond was rancid. Green filth in the ford. Horrible mess. Looks like farmyard slurry to me. Have a look in the morning. Hope it hasn’t killed the fish.’

Griff Rhys Jones (pictured at his mill pond in Pembrokeshire) is custodian of a stretch of rural Welsh river that was home to magical rare species of fish — until they were wiped out, apparently by an intensive farming slurry spill

I didn’t make much of this. It was a farm issue. I don’t farm. Too hard for me. In this distinctive, wind-driven landscape of Pembrokeshire, we are surrounded by dedicated men and women who do this difficult, all-day, all-weather, all-year job. And it has a dirty side to it. Surely, we have to accept that?

We have cattle and sheep on the land. Our neighbour Alun looks after them. I am really only a custodian here. I came to restore the buildings. They were derelict and beyond use for modern farming practices.

At that time, they were in danger of joining the many abandoned farmsteads around this part of far west Wales. Smallholdings become untenable and supermarket prices force farmers into greater intensive practices on larger, amalgamated properties.

But I wanted to preserve the fascinating stone buildings left behind. I have spent 15 years doing so: leaving the good fields to the tenant farmer and bringing the less accessible back to nature with acres of tree-planting and meadow management.

I reckon that 200 years ago, five families would have worked these 90 acres. Today, six families can stay there, including in a mill and a mill owner’s house we rent out.

Our mill sits just beside this little river. It is one of five mills that once worked the renewable power of the water on this tiny stream. And now, apparently, there had been some spill.

When I arrived, I didn’t need to look — I could smell the trouble. It took a little time to realise that Jonny’s hope was unfounded. Far from a simple farming accident, this was a disaster.

Those fish were dead all right. A heron flapped off as I walked to the ford. I suspect it had been gorging on the bloated bodies. I worried for it.

I went straight along to the nearby mill pond. We are in the process of clearing the invasive bullrush (for the second time). I found more of these delicately marked sewin, or sea trout, floating belly up. They were all dead. I had hardly expected such carnage. The slurry had deoxygenated the entire lake. How much of this muck had been washed in?

Nobody brought these poor fish here. They found their own way up this rivulet to spawn. The pond had been full of them. Only a few weeks before, a local wildlife enthusiast, Vaughan Thomas, had watched the crystal-clear water boil. They were jumping to catch flies.

I found more of these delicately marked sewin, or sea trout, (pictured) floating belly up. They were all dead. I had hardly expected such carnage. The slurry had deoxygenated the entire lake. How much of this muck had been washed in?

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ he told me. ‘These are rare, rare gene pools surviving from the Ice Age. I could count 25 from where I sat.’

But what really got to me were the eels. As we searched the shallows, trying to collect a sample of the foetid water in a used plastic bottle, we found three pathetic, sleek, silvery bodies lodged against stones on the riverbed.

I laid them out on the grass and photographed them.

I had never seen this protected species here before. They are rapidly becoming a worldwide rarity. In the past 40 years, the number of eels arriving in Europe has fallen by around 95 per cent.

Once, barrels of eels were sent by the people of the Fens in the form of tithes to the Bishop of Ely, the town of eels. I interviewed the last eel catcher in Britain, who gave up his craft five years ago. His trade, which had stretched back 3,000 years, is now completely gone.

There are no more eels in the town of eels. Overfishing and pollution have killed them all.

I was startled to find that they had been here at the head of my river in Pembrokeshire. More than anything else, their loss proved to me what a disaster this really was. We had lost something miraculous and unique that had survived in our tiny upland stream. 

The fields of Trehilyn straddle the river for about half a mile. I can’t tell how many other fish or species were killed further down. I was overwhelmed by how quickly and how devastatingly the poison took effect. It seemed to have wiped out the entire eco-system.

Many years ago, I wanted to try to create a walk along the river’s tiny valley through what are largely wind-whipped, bare fields. Peter, my tenant then, had helped me fence it off, explaining patiently to this city-slicker that the sheep and the cattle would still require some access to its vital water. I planted trees. We had created, as a national park officer admiringly informed us only this year, our own ‘nature corridor’ — that fashionable preserve that grants and policies and instructions are currently trying to encourage.

As I walked along its devastated length that weekend, I found myself struck by the paradox of all this. What is the point of organic farming and hedgerow policies on the one hand, if we are unable to control the excesses that can destroy it in an instant on the other?

This certainly seemed to be a ‘slurry incident’. A big spill into the watercourse, but it definitely hadn’t come from our fields.

Alun raises beef cattle and sheep. Slurry is the by-product of extensive dairy farming.

Large herds of cows are producing lagoons of cattle poo. It collects in pits and sumps and lakes until it starts to overflow.

There has been endless talk and rumour. Someone is supposed to have been off-loading tankers of the stuff nearby. There is new legislation due, which might have encouraged some illicit dumping. Perhaps a full tanker just dumped what it had left over. Or maybe it wasn’t slurry at all but an overflowing human cesspit — there’s one just up the other tributary — although that would have been a tell-tale grey colour, not putrid green. Alas, it remains a mystery.

By Monday, of course, I was burning with righteous indignation. I visited the Environment Agency’s website. It’s not their responsibility, apparently. But I posted the grid reference and the pictures anyway. Their message instructed me to phone Natural Resources Wales and I did so.

The fields of Trehilyn straddle the river for about half a mile. I can’t tell how many other fish or species were killed further down. I was overwhelmed by how quickly and how devastatingly the poison took effect. It seemed to have wiped out the entire eco-system. Pictured:  Rhys Jones’ remote farm

I got a recorded message. Several times. I left one of my messages with that grid reference again, and my numbers and my email. I have been told now that the message was not recorded. The phone system was at fault in some way. ‘Not very good for a first response unit,’ as a member of their staff later apologised.

I alerted everybody, including Ian, a local park ranger, who did get through to them. By now, it was Wednesday. A representative of Natural Resources Wales came down that evening. He was a friend of Ian’s. He lived locally. This was not his patch but he would have a look around.

He was sympathetic but not encouraging. My samples were no good. They were not taken under scientific conditions. My call was a bit late. The damage had happened a couple of days before.

Proper samples would need to be taken nearer the spill anyway. Where was that? Who knew? They have to catch the offender red-handed really.

What this decent man was telling me was that prosecution is difficult.

Spreading slurry on fields should not be discouraged. It is an organically sound practice. It’s better than a chemical fertiliser. It has to be done ten metres from a water course. Monitoring this is complicated.

Small farmers struggle. Some big farmers see the fines as little more than an inconvenient tax when a new pit can cost hundreds of thousands. Natural Resources Wales have visited all the dairy farmers in Wales to try to help. They are a small unit struggling against a growing lake of cow poo.

My guess is that they daren’t risk their limited resources pursuing prosecutions on the sort of flimsy hearsay evidence that I could provide. By the nature of it, this sort of crime is washed downstream to reappear after the actual event.

And we can’t just point the fingers at farmers. We want milk. Farmers struggle as it is. Better than the stick might be the sensible carrot.

This muck could be brass. But there needs to be a big incentive to turn it into a proper saleable fertiliser product. And how about its possibilities as fuel?

I have long believed that we might divert some of those scientists who spend so much time predicting doom and woe into technicians finding better solutions to our problems. And the problem does need sorting. It’s not just farms. Road run-off, oil spills and human waste from cesspits get straight into the natural water courses. Landfill can leach liquids. The next river down, the Western Cleddau, is apparently poisoned from landfill near Rudbaxton.

Vaughan Thomas is convinced that the whole river system in this, our totally rural paradise, is under siege. Just above nearby St Catherine’s Bridge, a small stream enters the main river and in heavy rain it runs constantly grey. This has been reported many times over the past five years, but still it carries on.

Brandy Brook is a small stream that runs into the famous Newgale Beach. It had a very healthy population of wild trout. No longer. There was a massive spill from a cesspit which not only killed all the fish, it also completely covered the beach with raw sewage.

The stream at Abercastle has been void of fish for many years thanks to slurry spills. The River Alun in St Davids was polluted with farming waste, causing huge fatalities of fish. And so on and so on. There are a few pockets of trout left. The Alun might possibly recover. Cartlett Brook in Haverfordwest, however, is now void of fish owing to constant pollution from domestic and farming waste. These depletions all happened within a few miles of Trehilyn. Most of it is taking place within one of the most wonderful national parks in Britain.

But it is everywhere else, too. Human waste and the slurry from intensive farming is swilling into our major rivers. It has been reported by The Rivers Trust that only 14 per cent of our rivers meet clean water standards.

In a big river, there is some hope that the waters will wash the offence away, but when the feeder tributaries, the little brooks and streams, the tarns and the becks themselves are poisoned, what hope do we have for regeneration? The eels made a crazily difficult journey up our river seeking their spawning grounds. How can we be so careless of their existence and chances?

Fifteen years ago, I helped a lave-net fisherman catch a salmon in the shallows of the Severn using nothing more than a hand net. His family had worked the river for centuries, but I learned then that the largest catch ever made had been in the 1970s. Now, the catch has dwindled to almost nothing and lave fishing has been banned — even though it is not the reason for the decline.

I feel ashamed. This has happened in my adult lifetime. I am part of a community who knows what is what. We’re not like whalers or cod fishermen in the 19th century who thought the world’s resources were inexhaustible.

Fashionable TV series may wallow in their brutal historic ruthlessness, as if we are more morally upright today, but we know the effects of greed and carelessness. We know we have to exercise self-control if we want our natural world to survive. We have absolutely no excuse.

We ought to be doing more. But even as we loudly trumpet organic farming and rewilding and eco-policy and natural virtues from all sides and in every magazine, we are actively getting worse.

People do care. I put the pictures you see here on social media. I am only on Instagram, but the response was astonishing. The offers of help and instruction poured in.

Some reported incidents in their own streams. Some had had good and effective support. Many lamented. Many were outraged. Dozens demanded swift retribution. I have had callers at the door. I was frankly amazed by what a storm was stirred up in these murky waters.

It is clear we have the will. How are we going to take action? This is our planet now.

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