The Welsh Government has defended its decision not to grant special protection for the river Wye just over the Herefordshire border – even though campaigners say the polluted river waters are making bathers sick.

Friends of the River Wye (FRW) had applied to have the river at the Warren, Hay-on-Wye given bathing water status, given its documented popularity with river users.

This would have required the Welsh government to monitor and improve its water quality, and let potential swimmers know if the water was safe to swim in or not.

But the Welsh Government rejected its bid this week – because it would clash with environmental designations the river already has.

As it is both a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and special area of conservation (SAC), activities such as swimming, canoeing and even walking along the river must be assessed and granted consent by Natural Resources Wales.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: “The Warren may still be considered for designation in future if the environmental impacts are properly assessed and consent for bathing is granted by NRW.”

They added: “We are committed to designating more inland bathing waters across Wales, but this will not be at the expense of our local wildlife and their habitats.”

The Wye’s conservation status was recently officially downgraded to “unfavourable: declining” due to pollution from manure and sewage.

FRW said in a tweet that the decision was “an incredibly frustrating result” that left it in “a maddening Catch 22”.

Writing about the decision in The Guardian, campaigner with the group Oliver Bullough said swimmers “regularly complain about getting upset stomachs after they venture into the water”.

Efforts have also been made to upgrade the conservation status of the Wye on the English side. But a bid by Herefordshire Council to have the whole river catchment named a Water Protection Zone was rejected by the government in 2022.

Coun Louis Stark, who put forward the original motion and also one seeking bathing status for the river at Ross-on-Wye, said both “still remain the policy of the council”.

“The problems with the river run far deeper than just whether it is safe to swim in it, and we need to address these now,” he said.