Are anti-pollution plans to drastically cut livestock numbers in the Wye upriver catchment area for real? No one will quite say.

A report by Herefordshire Council’s Cabinet Commission for Restoring the Wye, approved by councillors last month, suggested that among the most achievable options for meeting its “strategic objectives” on the river would be to “drive changes to farming practice, so creating opportunities for livestock reduction and facilitating community-led sustainable agricultural practices”.

At a full meeting of the county’s councillors next day, Coun Roger Phillips said: “Engagement with farmers needs to be clear about the massive de-stocking that is expected within the catchment area.”

He said an online briefing to councillors on the issue had proposed figures of a 40 per cent cut in cattle numbers, and over 30 per cent in sheep.

“Clearly that is a huge change to that industry,” Coun Phillips said. “There needs to be honest engagement, and those figures need to be transparent in those discussions.”

He later explained that “the suggestion was that a reduction of this scale is needed to be achieve reduction in phosphate” – the main cause of the declining ecological state of the Wye, largely thought to come from manure spread on fields .

“However the number of beef and sheep numbers over the last 10 years have already declined, and beef numbers will be reducing [further] due to lack of profitability and staffing,” he said.

In January the county’s Big Economic Plan, also backed by the council’s cabinet, set a goal to “restore some land as a net carbon sink, whilst still retaining productive land for farming” within five years.

A spokesperson for Herefordshire Council played down the suggestion of targets for reducing livestock, saying: “We are in the early stage of discussing the options available to reduce agricultural pollution, and a detailed scientific, economic and regulatory assessment of destocking as a proposition has not yet been considered.”

Kate Speke-Adams, managing director of Herefordshire Rural Hub which hosts the Farm Herefordshire partnership, said: “We have identified and are working on several opportunities that will help farm businesses to deliver improvements in water quality.

“Herefordshire has always been an agriculturally diverse county, no one size fits all, and there will need to be multiple solutions to accommodate this.”