Cooperation and enforcement are both needed to improve the “declining” River Wye in Herefordshire, environment secretary Therese Coffey said in a visit to the county yesterday.

“Today wasn’t a day for finger pointing, nor was it a talking shop,” she said after meeting county and Welsh councillors, farming and environmental groups, regulators, Avara Foods, MPs and the Welsh Government in Hereford to discuss ways to improve the ongoing poor state of the river.

“It’s important to work in a coordinated fashion to reduce the impact on the river,” she said. “We need to potentially be more radical. But it won’t be just one thing. Regulation isn’t the only answer but it is important.”

Ms Coffey had earlier welcomed the sentencing of Herefordshire landowner John Price to 12 months, reduced at appeal to 10, for clearing a large and environmentally sensitive stretch of the River Lugg, a tributary of the Wye.

“Where there is a gratuitous element, we have to take action and to stand up for nature when it is being targeted in this way,” she said yesterday. “That doesn’t mean taking people to court every day of the year.”

Emphasising the “carrots” as well as “sticks” involved, she pointed to £1.2 million of funding allocated to farms in the Wye catchment to improve slurry infrastructure, and a doubling of funding for the Catchment Sensitive Farming advice programme.

The Government says it is also “growing the Environment Agency’s agricultural regulation workforce”, enabling it to undertake more farm inspections.

Ms Coffey’s visit coincided with the official status of River Wye Special Area of Conservation being downgraded from “unfavourable recovering” to “unfavourable-declining” by the Government’s advisor Natural England, which highlighted the decline in salmon in the river in particular.

Farming is believed to be responsible for over 70 per cent of pollution in the river.

Asked whether it was sustainable to be raising 24 million chickens in the Wye catchment, Ms Coffey said: “People still want to eat chicken and we still import a lot of chickens into this country.

“An element of food production is sustainable, the key thing is how we handle the chicken manure, and we offer financial support to improve that.

“There is science and innovation around how we use phosphate so it doesn’t end up in rivers.”