Land that will grow four tons of wheat to the acre and give good grazing is too valuable to be flooded with sewage effluent

For 300 years Neville Waters's family has farmed in the parish of Nash, just outside Newport in Gwent. But now their livelihood, like that of other farmers round them, is threatened by a scheme so idiotic as to be scarcely credible. The aim is to flood 1,000 acres of land - most of it with sewage effluent, some with sea water - to create a bird reserve.

To Mr Waters, the proposal is both practical madness and personal insult. If it goes ahead, he will lose 150 of the 270 acres which he farms, and his dairy herd may well go out of business. Apart from the fact that the scheme will cost pounds 6m or pounds 7m to implement, it will take pounds 500,000 a year to run, and reduce annual agricultural production by at least pounds 1m. It may also prove fatal to the rare plants and insects for which the area has been designated a site of special scientific interest.

The trouble has its origins in Cardiff Bay, 15 miles to the south west, where the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation is attempting to revitalise the waterfront. This project is now well advanced, and a key feature is the construction of a barrage across the estuary of the Taff and Ely rivers. This will turn the bay into a freshwater lake, flooding 500 acres of tidal mudflats and thus depriving several thousand wading birds, principally dunlin and redshank, of their feeding grounds.

Having fought the scheme unsuccessfully, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and other conservation bodies demanded compensation, and extracted a promise from the Secretary of State for Wales that alternative bird accommodation would be found.

The promise was backed by the European Commission, which threatened prosecution if the Government did not take action. Now, with four other areas considered and rejected, the axe is poised above the Gwent Levels, a strip of farmland along the coast south of Newport.

Nobody claims that this area is beautiful. Its western end is dominated by a vast power station, now closed down; inland, industrial development has sprawled out in a hideous barrier between the coastal plain and the hills. Nevertheless, the Levels are fascinating, for every acre bears evidence of man's 2,000-year struggle to control the ubiquitous water. Within a high sea-wall the flat fields are bounded by a network of reens (major watercourses) and lesser ditches. The oldest fields have shallow open channels, known as grips, running at right angles to the main ridge- and-furrow drainage system. Out of sight below ground are more modern drains filled with pipes and shingle.

The developers claim that the soil is very poor, and should be graded 3B. Local farmers retort that 80 per cent of the land in Wales is graded 4 or 5, and is rock or bog: the Levels are thus in the top 20 per cent by any reckoning. Land which will grow four tons of wheat to an acre and produce excellent grazing is far too valuable (they say) to be flooded with sewage effluent.

That is the imminent fate of the area known as saltmarsh. All drains will be blocked. Fields will be surrounded by bunds, or banks, of earth. Houses within the reserve will be ringed by individual bunds, with effluent lapping outside them from October to May.

Close to the derelict power station, ash has settled over the years to a depth of 12ft or 14ft in huge ponds specially built to contain it. These deposits contain boron, arsenic and other noxious materials, yet now some of them are to be excavated to a depth of 3ft so that they too can be flooded with sewage, in the hope of establishing a colony of - wait for it - bitterns.

There is clearly some risk that poisonous substances will contaminate the sewage effluent. Even advocates of the scheme admit that the habitat of the new reserve will be different from that of Cardiff Bay, and will not attract the displaced species.

Until last week, the Newport Planning Committee had been proposing to make a recommendation to the local council without even looking at the site. Then, at the last minute, they agreed to hold a site inspection. So the protest group has won a temporary reprieve.

No wonder the farmers are enraged by the thought that the labour of generations will be brought to nothing, that they will lose their land by compulsory purchase, and that several small family businesses will go under.

What annoys them most is that decisions are being taken by distant quangos whose members are totally ignorant of the area.

"The Government keeps talking about freedom of choice," said Mr Waters, "and yet we have none. Instead, we have to listen to a lot of twaddle from people who don't know the first thing about our environment, our heritage, our businesses, our traditions - and from people who don't care, either."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Magento Front End Web Developer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Front End Web Developer is re...

Investigo: management accountant

£250 - £300 per day: Investigo: Growing international marketing business requi...

Recruitment Genius: ORM / Online Reputational Consultant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ORM Consultant is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities Manager

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of educat...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore