A North Yorkshire watercourse is so polluted by untreated sewerage that it is unsafe for children to play in it and people worry it will soon become a 'sewer', a public meeting has heard. 

Around 100 people attended a meeting about the health of the River Ure last week at Leyburn Methodist Church Hall - where they heard about the fears raised over the detrimental impact of sewerage on the river, and what this was doing to communities.

In particular, Bishopdale Beck in Wensleydale was cited as one of the most problemed areas - with campaigners highlighting that if children played in the water, they risk becoming unwell.

This meeting comes as the Environment Agency has committed to tackling water pollution in the River Ure and will work with agencies moving forward on several projects.

The Northern Echo: Charlotte Simons (Yorkshire Dales River Trust) addressing the River Health meetingCharlotte Simons (Yorkshire Dales River Trust) addressing the River Health meeting (Image: PIP POINTON)

The meeting, organised by the Association of Rural Communities, aimed at highlighting key issues with pollution in the River Ure.

The chairman of the Association, Alastair Dinsdale, told the meeting: "I have lived alongside the River Ure and its tributary Ellerbeck all of my life. I remember playing in the stream and spent many years exploring and fishing the Ure, but have noticed a gradual decline in the health of the river.

"We know the water companies are failing to invest and update the infrastructure.  Local authorities need to develop an integrated approach to planning and its impact on the environment, including the rivers.

"We want tonight to be positive and bring about accountability and change. We need a strong group of people to monitor the state of the river, and we need to lobby to improve things before the river Ure becomes the Wensleydale sewer."

The Northern Echo: The River UreThe River Ure (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

Mr Dinsdale's concerns were shared by many who attended the meeting, including Richard Loukota, from Thornton Rust, who told the meeting that according to the Environment Agency, there had been 11,612 hours of discharge during 2023 as compared to 4,370 hours in 2022.

This, he said, was an increase of 160 per cent. 

There had been discharges for 3,233 hours in 2023 from the treatment plant between Leyburn and Harmby, he added.

West Burton resident, Neil Smeeton, speaking on behalf of Burton cum Walden Parish Council, described how upset he was to see visitors allowing their children to play in Bishopdale Beck.

The Northern Echo: Tom Orde-Powlett with Clare BeasantTom Orde-Powlett with Clare Beasant (Image: PIP POINTON)

He reported that in 2022 the sewage treatment plant at West Burton discharged untreated sewage on 138 separate days for a total of 1,079 hours. And it was only slightly better in 2023.

He said:  "West Burton sewage treatment plant was the worst for days of discharging untreated sewage in the whole River Ure catchment area from Hawes right down to Ripon.

"Burton cum Walden Parish Council has asked Yorkshire Water to increase the storage capacity of our local treatment plant so no untreated sewage has to be pumped straight into our beautiful Bishopdale Beck.

“Untreated sewage only adds to the beck’s problems from Thoralbys treatment plant upstream."

He and others reported on the considerable decrease in the number of fish especially in the breeding areas along the becks near Hawes.

Meanwhile, Eddie Wyvill, chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Salmon Group and also born in Wensleydale, said that in the last ten to fifteen years had seen changes which had had a massive impact upon the landscape with a direct correlation with the quality of water in the river.

He said: "The Yorkshire Dales was one of the strongholds of [hay] meadows. They used to be full of different kinds of grasses and full of flowers.

"But now, due to intensive dairy farming, particularly in Coverdale, many of the hay meadows have been replaced with ryegrass, a monoculture with no insects.  He added that the fields of ryegrass were sprayed with slurry and cut five times a year.

The Northern Echo: The River Ure near Jervaulx AbbeyThe River Ure near Jervaulx Abbey (Image: NORTHERN ECHO)

"Just before heavy rainfall down the slurry tankers come, the whole Dale stinks. I spoke to one of the farmers [who sprayed] 1500 litres of slurry per acre per cut. That’s eight and a half thousand litres of slurry per acre. And some are doing it down by the River Ure - on the flood plain."

For this reason, he believed that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority  (YDNPA) should be held accountable for land use in these locations.

But Hannah Fawcett, the YDNPA farm conservation advisor, pointed out that the Authority owns less than one per cent of the land in the national park.

She and the Authority’s Catchment Sensitive Farming team works with private landowners and farmers by offering advice when requested.

The other speakers were Charlotte Simons; a senior project manager with Yorkshire Dales River Trust, Clare Beasant, the manager of Yorkshire Water’s newly created River Health Improvement team, and Nathan Lawson the team’s partnership and community engagement advisor. 

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Ms Beasant and Mr Lawson assured the meeting that the problems with treatment plants will be investigated and solutions found.

Ms Simons, who leads the YDRT’s Wharfe Catchment Management Plan, described how volunteer teams participating in a citizens’ science programme had carried out water sampling along the River Wharfe. 

These samples were sent for analysis and the test results were used to identify specific areas and types of pollution.

"What we don’t do is talk to people enough, and what we don’t do is listen to people enough. And that’s why are really excited about being here tonight. We want to be involved and we want to support you as much as we can," she told the meeting.

In response to the concerns raised at the meeting, an Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We are taking action to tackle water pollution in our rivers with more investment, stronger regulation, tougher enforcement and additional resources going into agriculture and water industry regulation.

“On the River Ure, we are working with a number of organisations to improve water quality and biodiversity. This includes providing funding and support for a wide range of projects and initiatives, along with giving technical advice and guidance to help landowners reduce the risk of pollution from their land.”

Following the meeting, many expressed an interest in setting up a group similar to that for the River Wharfe and also Save our Swale.

The Association of Rural Communities stated it would organise a meeting to do this and would then step back.

If any others would like to be involved they can contact Pip Pointon at pipspatch@gmail.com.