There's a fight over the River Wye: the landed gentry want to preserve the fishing, others want to sail pleasure boats

For centuries the River Wye has attracted thousands of visitors, drawn by its great scenic and natural beauty. In 1798 William Wordsworth penned Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey during a visit to the river. "How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee, 0 Sylvan Wye! though wanderer through the woods," he wrote.

Unfortunately, in recent years more and more people have turned to the Wye - a river of major importance for conservation because it has a largely natural regime and has remained free from pollution.

Their interest has often extended beyond sitting on its banks, notepad in hand, composing poetry. While the river still attracts walkers it also numbers canoeists, rafters, and pleasure-boat owners among its regulars. And its status as a salmon river brings game fishermen willing to spend a pretty pound in pursuit of their sport.

Until now, the disparate devotees of the river have co-existed in an uneasy truce. But the seemingly dry topic of navigation rights has shattered that peace.

There are two bids for the navigation rights, which convey a stake in the management of the river - power is shared with the National Rivers Authority (NRA), the national guardian of the aqueous environment, which has limited powers to make by-laws for the river.

One bid is from the NRA itself, which sees such a move as a natural extension of its present powers. The other contender is a group of businessmen seeking to revive an old company, incorporated by Parliament in 1809, The Company of Proprietors of the Rivers Wye and Lugg Navigation and Horse Towing Path.

Now lawyers are being hired and history books scoured as both sides pursue their case. The NRA is accused by its critics of being in cahoots with the landed gentry who have the fishing rights and want to preserve the status quo. Those wishing to revive the ancient company and develop the river commercially are seen as get-rich-quick interlopers.

Sporting organisations are assessing which lobby will best favour their vested interests. For instance, the river hosts the annual 100-mile River Wye Charity Raft Race, the longest event of its kind in the world, and those who organise it want to be allowed to continue.

Below Hay-on-Wye, down to the Severn Estuary at Chepstow, there are a 100 miles of free navigation on the river. But moves are afoot to impose regulations.

The NRA points to conflicts of interest that have arisen between various user groups such as canoeists, rafters and anglers. It argues that without controls "there is a risk that recreational use of the river will conflict with nature conservation and damage the environment or disturb wildlife."

Dr John Stoner, NRA regional general manager, said: "The River Wye and its catchment is a river system of great importance. We must safeguard its unique character. We believe this is the right time to try to secure the balanced use of the river for the benefit of this and future generations."

It is a view echoed by conservation groups, including English Nature and the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW), who both back the NRA's attempt to take on the navigation rights.

Ray Woods, an area officer for the CCW, said the navigation rights were a complex issue, but there would certainly be concern if the towing path company's proposals to introduce weirs and locks were to be implemented.

The river has Site of Special Scientific Interest status, and there are proposals to re-notify the Wye in the new Wildlife and Countryside Act and pave the way for it to be the first river in Britain to be made a Special Area of Conservation.

"The River Wye is special for a whole host of reasons. It supports rare species, including two types of shad, the Allis and the Twait, and because no impenetrable barriers have been introduced, and there has been no pollution, it is one of the most natural rivers in Britain," he said.

Conservationists are happy that the River Wye is not inundated with visitors. As regards boating and tourism it has not been extensively marketed, but that could change. Critics of those with a more commercial approach to the river fear "another Richmond on Thames".

And those involved with the towing path company believe that the river could be better exploited commercially. Installing locks and weirs, and dredging, would open the river up to pleasure boats as far as Hay-on-Wye and bring valuable tourism revenue.

The NRA has taken legal action to have the towing path company bid overturned, while at the same time embarking on a public consultation exercise before proceeding with its own legal claim to the rights. The first round in the fight went to the NRA after High Court proceedings were taken against Mr Victor Stockinger, a New Zealand lawyer who is handling the towing path company claim. The Court did not support Mr Stockinger's claim to act as of "governor" of the old company.

However, the search is on by those backing the towing path company to find the old shares, and they are confident the first legal setback will be overturned. Both parties were due back in court last month (Feb 15) to hear an appeal by Mr Stockinger against the ruling.

Des Davies, landlord of a Hereford pub and a prime mover behind the company, said: "We decided to revive the company because the river is dying. Salmon numbers are falling because the river is silting up. As a child I can remember catching elvers when the river was black with them. They have disappeared now."

He said the river was navigable to vessels up to 1856. A cider mill at Bredwardene was built with stone brought up river by barge. Research has shown, he claims, that locks existed on the river. "We don't want to damage the environment, but we do want to breath new life back into the river."

If the company can be revived it hopes to build 22 locks and weirs. Its backers believe that the tourism the company will attract will create 1,000 jobs along the river.

Those supporting the bid include Hereford City Council, which believes that the city and its riverside environs would benefit, and investors are standing by to finance it.

Charles Willis, the council's chief executive, said: "We are opposed to the idea of the NRA becoming the navigable authority because it wants to suppress navigation. The Wye is a dreadfully wasted resource. Once Hereford built ocean-going ships. Now it is impossible to reach the ocean because there is so little water."

The council sees economic development as a spin-off for the area. "We would like to see people navigate the river in pleasure boats, stop overnight and spend money here. We think this could be done without environmental damage," Mr Willis said.

The legal fight is certain continue. In the meantime, those who use the river for pleasure and profit will have to try and get along until a statutory control is established.

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