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04 March 2021

Press Release

For immediate release

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DEFRA faces renewed court action on river pollution

With nature in freefall WWF, Angling Trust and Fish Legal have today [4 March 2021] mounted a fresh legal challenge against the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) over its failure to tackle damaging pollution to England’s rivers, caused by agriculture. 

The case, originally brought to court in 2015 by WWF, Angling Trust and Fish Legal, highlights DEFRA’s failure to use “water protection zones” – a regulatory power available to them since 2009 – to actively combat diffuse agricultural pollution. This form of pollution results from farming practices; for example, fertilisers, manure, pesticides or sediment eroding or washing into rivers in the rain. It can cause the contamination of soil, air and water environments, and is a present threat to UK nature including species such as allis shad, Atlantic salmon, freshwater pearl mussel and seagrass.    

The three claimants are taking DEFRA and the Environment Agency back to court today because they have failed to comply with a court order for over 5 years.  

Tanya Steele, Chief Executive at WWF, said:  

“Freshwater habitats are some of the most vibrant on earth, but they are in catastrophic decline right around the world. Nature is in freefall and the UK is no exception.    

“It’s regrettable that it takes a legal challenge to persuade DEFRA to clean up our rivers and restore our freshwater habitats to good health. Ministers have had the power to do this for over a decade; it’s imperative they act now and resource this activity accordingly – England’s vulnerable nature and wildlife cannot afford to wait any longer.” 

This legal action comes in the wake of the publication of World’s Forgotten Fishesa new report from 16 global conservation charities, including WWF, exposing the dire outlook for the world’s populations of freshwater fish. One in three species are threatened with extinction and global freshwater biodiversity is declining at twice the rate of that in oceans or forests. 

Burbot and sturgeon have vanished from UK freshwaters, while salmon has suffered significant declines since the 1960s, and the European eel remains critically endangered.  

Much of that decline is driven by the poor state of freshwater habitats in parts of the UK, with just 14.6% of rivers in England achieving Good Ecological Status in the latest assessment. This is mostly due to agricultural pollution such as nitrates and phosphorous, physical modifications to waterbodies, such as dams, and, sewage. Furthermore data released by the Environment Agency in 2020, showed no English rivers met ‘chemical standards’ for water quality. 


Legal challenge from WWF, Angling Trust and Fish Legal  

  • WWF, Fish Legal and the Angling Trust are renewing their legal challenge over DEFRA’s failure to create Water Protection Zones to protect freshwater ecosystems and biodiversity at important sites for nature, where diffuse agricultural pollution - contamination of soil, air and water as a result of farming activities- remains a significant threat.   
  • The claimants are applying to Court to enforce a Consent Order issued in 2015, after court action from WWF, Fish Legal and the Angling Trust.  
  • The Claimants sent a formal ‘letter before action’ to DEFRA (the Defendants) in August 2020 (at which point, only one draft in Diffuse Water Pollution Plan had been produced). DEFRA and the EA responded in September 2020.  

World’s Forgotten Fish Report  

  • World’s Forgotten Fishes, a report published last week by 16 global conservation organisations, details the extraordinary variety of freshwater fish species, with the latest discoveries taking the total to 18,075 – accounting for over half of all the world’s fish species and a quarter of all vertebrate species on Earth. A full copy of the report is available here. 
  • The report highlights the devastating combination of threats facing freshwater ecosystems – and the fishes that live in them – including habitat destruction, hydropower dams on free flowing rivers, over abstraction of water for irrigation, and domestic, agricultural and industrial pollution. In addition, freshwater fishes are also at risk from overfishing and destructive fishing practices, the introduction of invasive non-native species and the impacts of climate change as well as unsustainable sand mining and wildlife crime. 
  • WWF is calling for the UK Government to support the implementation of a global Emergency Recovery Plan for freshwater biodiversity. This six-point plan would include reducing pollution, allowing rivers to flow more naturally, controlling invasive species, protecting wetlands and ending overfishing. 


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