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The rise of the mega farm [WFJ #31]
Supersized factory farms, like those in Somerset, are proving a detriment to rural landscapes and communities
We all know we should probably eat less meat. Yet – even with stats suggesting Brits are succeeding in cutting back – the drive for producing more, cheaper animal protein doesn’t seem to be subsiding.
The rise of the ‘mega farm’ is a case in point. In the US, a mega farm is essentially a hyperindustrialised factory farm, housing more than 125,000 poultry birds, 82,000 egg-laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cows, or 1,000 beef cattle. In other words, double or more of what we this side of the Atlantic consider ‘intensive’.
Keeping such high concentrations of livestock is – and not without evidence – considered morally and environmentally questionable. Which is probably why the emergence of these mega farms in the UK has been somewhat kept under the rug.
Only through recent research do we now know the true scope of their proliferation. As Compassion in World Farming’s (CIWF) Philip Lymbery found in his newly-published book Sixty Harvests Left, at least 1,099 mega farms exist in the UK, the extreme limits of which include four poultry farms registered for a million birds, and 19 dairies in which cows aren’t ever released outside.
Somerset is no stranger to this. In 2017, CIWF surveyed factory farms within 50 or so regions of the UK, determining in some instances that Somerset was one of the worst offenders, with the ninth-highest number of livestock (4,368,000) confined inside and restricted in their ability to practice natural behaviours, and the fourth-highest number of egg-laying hens (702,000) reared in this manner.1
The farms fitting within this intensive category of ‘agriculture’ – that is to say, those with at least 40,000 birds – include Beard Hill Farm outside Shepton Mallet, Woodborough Farm near Bath, and Oakstone Farm the other side of Westbury. Transparent Farms UK maps these intensive poultry and other livestock units, like Clapton Lane Piggery near Radstock, where more than 2,000 pigs are housed. The farm is run by Crockway Farms, which has been linked to instances of pigs kept in ‘appalling’ conditions with little to no access to natural light. This particular farm was approved by Red Tractor – the label that, in its own words, indicates food products “traceable, safe, and farmed with care.”
It’s the intensive farming of hens that has particularly plagued Somerset communities in recent years, though. A unit in East Huntspill near Bridgwater, operated by 2 Sisters Food Group and which houses 300,000 chickens, is recognised for its “nauseous” smell so bad it’s made local residents physically sick. In Sutton Veny near Warminster, also operated by 2 Sisters, planning has been approved to install a shed to house 179,000 chickens. None too happy about this, local campaigners say the installation will negatively affect the Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty in which it sits, and be noisy, smelly, pollute air and groundwater, and displace local businesses. All for the sake of producing cheap chicken that will, according to 2 Sisters’ website, supply Waitrose, Marks & Spencer, Morrissons, and Lidl, among others.
Pollution, however, is only part of the concern. Last year, a Viva! study found chickens at various factory farms, such as those in Somerset, to be dying of dehydration, grossly overweight, and having weak hearts and broken bones. Dead chickens were also trodden into the ground, which offered a breeding ground for disease. These farms were, according to Viva!, supplying the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Lidl, and KFC. Perhaps more disconcertingly, all the farms surveyed passed Red Tractor’s audits.
But, within the local area, it’s not all misery and willful destruction. Hens at Castlemead Poultry, near Radstock, are free to roam open pasture. Tamworths at The Story Pig near Sherbourne, live outdoors all year round. And Meadowsweet are facilitating their Shetland cattle’s natural grazing behaviours which, incidentally, help regenerate the land.
Industrialists argue this kind of farming is comparatively inefficient, and will not satiate the high demand for cheap meat. While that’s true – and suggests those demands should be much lower – such attitudes result in displaced, poisoned, or failing rural communities; the deplorable treatment of animals; and the tarnishing of the natural landscape.
The mega farm is well and truly here, though it challenges the thought – is bigger always better?
If the growth of factory farms in the last few years is anything to go by (the UK’s mega farm count was at 800 in 2017), the numbers are now likely considerably higher than that.