17.07.17 Environment

Intensive farming in the UK, by numbers

A major Bureau investigation has revealed the changing face of British farming. The number of intensive farms in the UK has risen by a quarter since 2011, with many so big they fit the definition of a US mega-farm. 

Below you can find all the data we obtained, analysed per country, county and type of livestock. It contains information on the five companies controlling nearly all poultry meat production in the UK. You will also find information on which of these companies operate mega-farms, and the supermarkets they supply.

Read the full investigation into the rise of intensive farms here

The Environment Agency - and its regional counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales - classify livestock farms as "intensive" if they have capacity for housing at least 40,000 poultry birds or 2,000 pigs grown for meat or 750 breeding pigs (sows).

These "intensive" farms each require a permit to operate that is issued by the relevant environment agency. Very large free range farms also need this licence but there are far fewer of them. This contains details of the farm operator, the number of livestock permitted to be housed and a detailed set of conditions that must be met for the farm to operate. 

Existing farms can be issued with a new permit if changes to the original conditions are proposed- such as if a farm wants to increase the number of livestock it houses - or if it changes owners.

Chickens carpet the floor of an intensive poultry farm Rob Stothard

How farms have intensified over time, and where

Most intensive farms in the UK are poultry farms, our analysis has shown. They make up 86% of the total numbers of permit-holding farms.

Between 2011 and 2017 there was a 27% increase in permit-holding poultry farms across the UK.

Overall, the number of large intensive farms - pig and poultry - with an Environment Agency permit in the UK is currently 1,674 - an increase of 26% since 2011 when there were 1,332 facilities requiring a permit. The figures are as of July 2017 for Scotland, March 2017 for England, and Northern Ireland and January 2016 for Wales.

Some areas of the UK saw particularly sharp rises: in Northern Ireland the number of pig and poultry factory farms has increased by 68% from 154 in 2011 to 259 in 2017.

The Bureau also calculated which areas in England had the most permit-holding intensive farms. This was broken down by operational area – which is the part of the country each local Environment Agency department covers.

Shropshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire have the most intensive farms with a total of 208. Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk have the second highest total 176, with Yorkshire next with 168. This was compared with Solent and the South Downs – which have 20. Kent and South London have 8 and Hertfordshire and North London 3.

Nearly 800 mega-farms

Our investigation has also shown the UK is now home to at least 789 mega-farms or what the US calls CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations).

To meet the definition of a Cafo, a facility must have at least 125,000 broilers (chickens raised for meat), or 82,000 layers (hens which produce eggs) or pullets (chickens used for breeding),  or 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cattle or 1,000 beef cattle. 

The majority of the UK mega-farms - 575 - are poultry, with 190 pig, 21 dairy and 3 beef units.

Seven of the 10 largest poultry farms - producing meat or eggs or both - in the UK have the capacity to house more than one million birds. The biggest two farms are able to hold 1.7 million and 1.4 million birds respectively. The biggest pig farm is able to hold 23,000 pigs, while the largest cattle farm - in Lincolnshire - can house approximately 3,000 cattle.

Penrhos chicken farm in Herefordshire houses 168,000 chickens. Rob Stothard

Supermarket links

The Bureau's investigation also established that many UK supermarkets and fast food chains buy from companies operating such US-style mega-farms, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Co-op, M&S, Morrisons, Asda, McDonalds and Nando's.

  • Poultry supplier Hook 2 Sisters is a joint venture between PD Hook and 2 Sisters Food Group. It operates farms that supply birds to 2 Sisters Food Group whose customers include Tesco, Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, M&S, and Asda. Data shows that Hook 2 Sisters operates 37 Cafo-sized facilities across the UK.   
  • Faccenda Foods, which supplies poultry to Asda and Nando's, among others, operates 26 Cafos in the UK. Moy Park, which supplies Asda, McDonalds and Burger King, has 19 Cafos across the country.  
  • JSR Farms, which rears pigs, says it is in partnership with Sainsbury’s and Morrisons, and operates 4 Cafos, according to our analysis. J C Lister, another major pig producer, operates 2 Cafos and reportedly has supplied Tesco, Co-op and Aldi.
  • A large Cafo-sized farm called Pawton Dairy supplies milk to Arla. Arla butter and cheese are sold in Co-Op.
Chickens are packed into an intensive chicken farm. Rob Stothard

The five major poultry companies

The majority of Britain’s poultry meat is produced by a handful of large companies including Faccenda, Moy Park, Cargill, 2 Sisters and Banham Poultry - all of which are privately-owned.

Cargill PLC

Operating Profit 2016: £19.2m in financial year 2016

Headquarters: Weybridge, Surrey

Key Facilities: Two chicken processing facilities in Hereford, and a primary processing chicken plant in Newent. It also has a chicken processing plant in Wolverhampton. Currently processes 1.6 million chickens per week at the Grandstand Road, Hereford, plant. These chickens are received from Cargill’s network of more than 100 independently owned farms, slaughtered (using a state of the art controlled atmosphere stunning process), cleaned, chilled and prepared either for further processing or packaged as fresh chicken products (whole chickens and jointed chicken pieces for the food service, retail and restaurant businesses).

Cargill UK Holdings is owned by Cargill, Inc, a private US company which made $1.64 bn in adjusted operating earnings in 2016.

Faccenda Foods Limited

Operating profit 2016: £7.8m in financial year 2016

Headquarters: Brackley, Northants

Facilities: Operates or partners with 150 farms across the UK for chicken rearing. Produces 2.2m chicks per week at breeder farms. Factories in Telford and Abergavenny.

Moy Park

Operating profit: £50.6m to Dec 2015  

Headquarters: Craigavon, Northern Ireland

Key Facilities: Four primary production sites and three further processing sites. 

Owned by JBS, a Brazilian company

2 Sisters Food Group Limited

Operating loss: £2.2m in financial year 2016

Headquarters: Wakefield, West Yorkshire

The firm owns more than 700 farms across the UK and also contracts its poultry from independent farmers.

Owned by Boparan Holdings Limited. 

Banham Poultry Limited

Operating Loss: £473,612 in financial year up to Oct 2015

Headquarters: Attleborough, Norfolk

Key Facilities: Sales of 650,000 chickens per week. Has its own hatchery, which supplies all farms producing poultry for the company, these may be owned, rented or leased. The company employs around 600 people.  Processes 21.8 million birds a year.