Environment

‘The grubby tentacles are everywhere’: This UK sewage discharge map shows where waste is being pumped into nature reserves

Sewage pollution is flooding some of Britain's most beautiful conservation spots, new analysis has warned

Red dots across a map of England and Wales show the breadth of sewage spills in protected areas

Thousands of hours of sewage discharges have been recorded across Britain. Image: Unearthed

Britain’s most sensitive wilderness areas are filled with unique wildlife, precious biodiversity – and raw sewage.

Water companies pumped sewage into protected conservation areas in England and Wales nearly 1,200 times last year, analysis by Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed has revealed.

This translates to approximately 305,963 hours of sewage spillage, polluting popular beauty spots from the Lake District to the Dorset coast to Brecon Beacons national park.

The analysis looked at overflow pipes classified as ‘high priority’ by the government – pipes spilling into or within 50 metres of a protected nature site. This interactive map reveals the locations of all the polluting spills that occurred in these areas.

Wild swimmers should be outraged, warned Josh Harris, head of communications at environmental campaign group Surfers Against Sewage.

“The grubby tentacles of the sewage scandal are everywhere,” he said. 

“From ‘excellent’ rated bathing waters, to sites of special scientific interest, those in power are failing to protect even the most protected of locations from the scourge of raw sewage.”

Which protected areas are most impacted by sewage pollution?

Britain’s lakes, rivers and seas are regularly polluted with excrement and chemical effluent. Water companies discharged raw sewage into the UK’s waterways around 825 times per day in 2022, totalling more than 1.75 million hours of spillage.

Unearthed’s analysis focused on discharges specifically within conservation sites. 

In total, 515 protected areas were affected, including England and Wales’ Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Area of Conservation (SACs), Special Protected Area (SPAs) and Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance). These areas saw 305,963 hours of raw sewage spilled.

The River Derwent and Bassenthwaite Lake conservation area in the Lake District was pumped with sewage for more than 6,600 hours.

In the mountainous Brecon Beacons, the River Usk SAC received over 9,700 hours of sewage overflows last year.

The Solent and Dorset coast received more than 14,000 hours of spills in 2022. This area includes holiday hotspot the Isle of Wight.

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

In Plymouth – home to the UK’s first ever national marine park – the Plymouth Sound and Estuaries saw more than 11,000 hours of spillage.

Around 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England. But even these ultra-rare habitats were impacted – over 38,000 hours of sewage were released into or within 50m of chalk streams in England last year.

Why are Britain’s beaches and rivers so polluted? 

The UK’s 19th century plumbing infrastructure is not equipped to deal with a growing population. To reduce pressure on the sewer network, the Environmental Agency permits water companies to release overflow after heavy rains.

But public outrage is growing at British waterways being flooded with contaminants like bacteria, heavy metals, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

Your support changes lives. Find out how you can help us help more people by signing up for a subscription

The UK has some of the most polluted beaches and waterways in Europe. Only 14% of rivers in England have “good” ecological status, the Environmental Agency has warned. Late last month, at least 57 swimmers fell ill with sickness and diarrhoea after competing in the World Triathlon Championship Series off the Sunderland coast.

The government published its Storm Overflow Reduction Plan last summer, and promised to make water companies cover the cost of sewage clean-up – but campaigners have called for tougher penalties for storm overflows. 

“We need decision makers who take real action, not just spout empty rhetoric while our ecosystems degrade and collapse,” Harris said.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
'Nature is slowly healing': How rewilding is bringing Britain's extinct species back from the dead
Conservation

'Nature is slowly healing': How rewilding is bringing Britain's extinct species back from the dead

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back
Rewilding

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned
Green transition

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'
beavers
Environment

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know