US-style "megafarms" are sweeping across the UK, a major Bureau investigation has revealed, a shift that is changing the face of British agriculture.
The increase in megafarms – which can house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 cattle apiece – is part of a 26% rise in intensive livestock farming over the last six years.
The spread of intensive farms has divided local communities. Many of the facilities are located in picturesque rural areas where neighbours complain they significantly impact the environment. Industrial-scale farming produces huge amounts of manure, carcasses, silage and dirty water, and their livestock consumes large amounts of grain, all typically transported in HGVs on country roads. Tens or hundreds of thousands of animals are also transported to slaughter each month.
There are also complaints about foul smells, and the visual impact of huge buildings.
But big farms argue the environmental impact is much lower overall than if the same amount of meat was produced free range or organically. An organic chicken must have four square metres of space each, whereas a bird in an intensive farm gets a space about the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Intensive facilities also have the resources and technology to tightly control the environment inside the sheds where livestock is housed, using just the right amount of water, feed and heat to grow the animals to the maximum size in the minimum time.
The Bureau visited the small village of Kington, Herefordshire, where a poultry megafarm has met opposition, to hear from its owner Richard Williams and his neighbour Janet Srodinzki.
"We’re making safe, quality protein grown in the UK"
Richard Williams owns Penhros farm, which has four sheds each housing 42,000 chickens. The facility produces 1.3 million birds a year for major poultry company Cargill, which supplies Tesco.
"I’ve lived in the area all my life. My father started in 1960 with a 60-acre farm. I’ve built it up and now we’ve got 420 acres and two poultry sites. We also grow fruit – cherries and apples – and crops.
We’ve got four sheds – nearly 110 metres long by 20 metres wide. We decided with the planning officer this would be the best site. At the top of the road [over the road from Janet Srodzinski’s house], it's quiet. We’re here on a hot day with the wind blowing in our face and there’s no odour. I’ve planted orchards in the hill in front of [the farm] and trees directly in front of it. You can’t see it from the road. I also painted the sheds, the feed bins and the plumes juniper green to make them blend in - even though that was more expensive. It would be a lot more reflective if it was silver.
We’ve had a lot of hassle with these sheds. The Environment Agency gets a lot of complaints. They have a duty to investigate so they call me up and come out to check. But what’s important is that there has never been a substantiated claim. That means they’ve never found us doing anything wrong.
Mrs Srodinzki complains about the lorries but the A44 is a busy trunk road. There’s a quarry nearby and a sewage farm. The feed trucks for this farm [amount to] 12 trailer loads every 47 days. It wasn’t in planning rules but I asked for a one-way system to help traffic and I asked for the feed trucks to come during the day.
The catching trucks come at night [lorries which take the birds to slaughter] - and it can be all night - but that’s because it's calmer for the birds. It's for animal welfare.
I don’t want you to get the idea we’re at each other's throats because we’re not. I just want everyone to get along. Most of her complaints apply to my own house which is nearby. I think there’s a difference between what people who come to the countryside to retire feel about the land and people who are making a living on it. People say these poultry units have ruined Herefordshire but look - does it look ruined? It’s still beautiful countryside. We can have huge areas completely protected and have them as monuments. But is that going to feed the nation?
This is an area where the library is closing, the sixth form is closing, both banks are closing. I’m providing employment. There’s my wife and I and we employ three people. But there’s 40 different firms employed during a crop. There’s the guys who built the sheds. Those that deliver chicks, deliver feed, deliver shavings, the electrician. We employ the bloke who services the biomass boiler, the bloke who brings the pellets, the bloke who provides treatment for the water. If this went, you wouldn’t get that employment.
Cargill is the biggest employer in Hereford and it has knock-on effects. The lorry driver might stop in the village for a cup of tea - use the café there, buy a drink.
I’m doing this to make money. To provide for my children. 420 acres sounds like a lot buts it’s a small farm. Poultry is one of the biggest success stories of farming. I’m not wealthy by any stretch and I’ve got a lot of borrowed money. This gives us an opportunity to make profit.
I’m very proud of what we do here. Everything we do is driven by customer demand. I’m just driven by what people are choosing in the aisles in Tesco and Morrisons. The customer has asked us to provide cheap, quality protein produced in the UK, and this is the best way of doing that."
"It’s a horrible sweet sickly smell... I pray for north winds now"
Janet Srodzinski lives 235 metres from Penhros Farm. She won a judicial review against Hereford Council in 2014 after it approved planning for the facility to be built. But Richard Williams reapplied, and having already spent £27,000 on her case (though she was later awarded £13,000 back by the council), she didn’t have the funds to fight it again.
"The first lot of chickens came August 2015. It’s made my life very difficult. My life is my garden and my dogs. I’ve got quite a big garden and I used to love sitting in it. Now if the wind is in the wrong direction for me, I can’t go outside. The smell is coming out of the ventilation chimneys. It’s a horrible sweet sickly smell. It’s a mix of bedding, chicken droppings, goodness only knows what. Its weekends as well. Its 24/7.
The smell gradually gets worse and sometimes I can’t go into my garden. I remember Christmas day 2015 I went out on to my terrace and I was almost sick. The smell was dreadful all day, Christmas day. Last summer was a bit better because we had north-westerly winds. I pray for north winds now.
Then there’s the lorries. They grind up the hill. It’s so congested, in Eardisley, lorries have to wait and a convoy of them comes through. They didn’t consider the impacts on the local infrastructure at all.
The lorries come at night. Once I remember, it was 4 o'clock one morning. The bedroom at the front, the window is directly opposite the exit to the farm. It lit the bedroom up and woke me up. I’ve moved bedrooms now, I don’t sleep there anymore because I’ll be woken up by the lorries. It was happening at night time often because they catch them at night, putting them into the lorries and then finishing in the day. Its 26 lorries going in and out, 56 movements. Coming every 35 days.
The following day is clean-out, you’ve got the noise of the power washer and the tractors and trailers coming out with the muck. I don’t smell the muck which is good. They dry the buildings out, put fresh shavings down. That goes to day 48.
It’s a lovely county and these sheds have ruined it. My next door neighbour did a charity cycle run from Creddenhill to Weobley, and everywhere they went there was a smell of chickens. For a tourist area, it’s just not very nice.
More people will have them erected near their houses. It’s going to be very difficult to stop it. In my opinion if we’ve got to have chicken sheds its got to be as far away from humans as possible."
Main image and images inside Penhros Farm by Rob Stothard
Photo of Penhros Farm exterior with smoke rising supplied by Janet Srodzinski
The photo says it all a cruel way to treat mammals and the creatures of the natural world. Campaign needed.
There is no new discovery here. Intensive broiler farming has been in existence since the 60's when Anthony Fisher brought back ideas from the US and started intensive poultry meat production in Sussex, later to become Buxted Poultry Company. I farmed intensive broilers myself for 26 years, with an 80,00 capacity farm. The large farm sizes quoted simply means more sheds, but with an equivalent increase in stockmen to manage them.
The anthropomorphic "A4 sheet of paper" meme is a distortion of what actually happens in a chicken shed. Birds cluster together naturally and there is always space for movement. If there weren't, then the farm manager wouldn't be able to walk through the birds inspecting his stock. Stockmanship is paramount and a good stockman has a feel for the welfare of his stock, knowing immediately if something is wrong. Good welfare means viable returns from the operation, poor welfare means poor financial returns and a short existence for the business.
This is all about perception. The idea of a million birds is outside the perception of most people, who imagine chickens roaming the fields, as in the current deceptive Sainsbury advert. Birds kept extensively are also vulnerable to diseases such as Bird Flu, which can be carried by wild birds. If you stop large scale farming in the UK, the chickens will simply come in from Brazil, Thailand, Poland and the rest, where they will be farmed on an at least equivalent scale, but without the microscope of an investigation such as yours.
To farm these chickens on free range would require vast acreages which would not be available. The rosy picture of Free Range Chickens is not quite so attractive in the depths of a UK winter, with serious welfare issues because of cold, wet weather. A controlled environment means the chickens are kept at an optimum temperature and always have access to clean feed and water.
These farms do not destroy the countryside anywhere near as much as the acreages of heavily subsidised solar farms, or the again heavily subsidised wind farms, visible for tens of miles and destroying wild uplands and rural areas alike, for little effect and requiring conventional power station back-up, or diesel generator back-up in many cases.
Intensive poultry farming is a success story, with good welfare provision, a significant contribution to the economy and no public subsidy. Please, let's keep it that way.