New figures reveal that the number of large industrial-sized pig and chicken farms in the UK continues to rise, with close to 2,000 across the country.
In 2017, the then environment secretary Michael Gove told MPs: “One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country.” However, the number of industrial-sized pig and poultry units in the UK has risen by 7% from 1,669 in 2017 to 1,786 this year.
Chicken farms are classed as “intensive” if they have capacity to house at least 40,000 poultry birds, while pig farms must have 2,000 pigs raised for meat or 750 breeding sows. Intensive pig and poultry facilities require a permit from the Environment Agency to operate, which is not the case at present for intensive beef and dairy units, so their numbers are not monitored.
In England alone, according to 2020 data obtained by the Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the number of permitted intensive livestock facilities in England has risen 7% since 2017 to 1,313 as of February this year. Of these, 1,092 are poultry and 221 are pig units, up from 1,016 and 210 respectively. Scotland has seen a rise of 10% and Wales has seen the highest rise, up 21% since 2017. Northern Ireland’s figures have not shown any increase.
There is concern that Brexit and new trade deals might further fuel intensification if farmers are forced to stay competitive in the face of cheap, low-welfare imports. At present, the new agriculture bill offers no legal guarantees to prevent this.
Intensive farms divide opinions
Driven in part by supermarket pressure to keep prices low and consumer demand for cheap meat, the growth of industrial farming remains divisive.
Intensive pig and poultry farms have been linked to local biodiversity damage from ammonia emissions and to detrimental impacts on local communities including noise pollution, increased traffic, and potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and air pollutants. It is also seen as a driver of deforestation in South America, through its reliance on protein-rich crops such as soya as animal feed.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK has some of the highest animal welfare and environmental standards in the world. This means all livestock farms, regardless of their size or scale, must meet our high standards and comply with robust legislation.”
However, animal welfare charities say 70% of UK farm animals, more than 1 billion animals every year, are now kept in intensive indoor units that Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming calls “the biggest cause of animal cruelty in Britain today”.
One million-chicken farms
Chicken is our most popular meat, with 20 million birds slaughtered every week in the UK. The vast majority (86%) of industrial-sized farms are in the poultry sector, with 1,534 industrial-sized farms. Previous research from 2017 found seven out of the 10 largest farms in the UK housed more than 1 million birds.
But large-scale and intensive methods of farming poultry with high stocking densities and fast-growing breeds have been linked to poor animal welfare. Chickens are bred to grow four times faster than in the 1950s – taking 35-45 days to reach a target slaughter weight of 2-2.5kgs. Almost one-third of intensively reared broiler chickens in the UK develop heart and lung problems. And more than half of the birds in flocks with fast-growing breeds have severe walking problems, with many suffering from lesions on their feet through sitting in their own waste.
The intensification of the poultry sector has also generated local conflict with units often built in regional clusters surrounding slaughterhouses and factories. The Cluck Off campaign in Rushden, Northamptonshire, is fighting Bedfordia’s proposal for a six-shed unit for 314,000 birds, while in Horham and Southolt, Suffolk, locals are trying to stop Epigs Ltd’s plans for 12 poultry houses producing 800,000 chickens every eight weeks.
The National Farmers’ Union says farm size is not the critical factor in dictating the welfare of birds. “It is crucial we recognise that animal husbandry and stockmanship are the greatest factors that determine animal health and welfare, not farm size or system of production,” said its chief poultry adviser, Gary Ford.
Pigs still in crates
While outdoor production accounts for 40% of the UK pig industry, the majority of UK pig farming is now intensive with 60% of sows and almost all fattening pigs kept indoors in concrete or slatted floor pens – entitled to one square metre of space each.
In the pig sector, there are 252 industrial indoor units in the UK, up 5% since 2017. Previous research from 2017 found the largest then could hold 23,000 pigs.
Abnormal behaviour such as tail biting is common in intensive pig units but can be reduced by providing adequate enrichment such as straw. However, more than 70% of pigs in the UK have their tails cut off to mitigate tail biting and stress aggression.
Around 60% of sows give birth while confined in a farrowing crate. The government recently rejected attempts to outlaw the use of farrowing crates despite their adverse impact on sow welfare, inducing repetitive stress behaviours such as bar biting.
The National Pig Association states that the production system doesn’t dictate animal welfare and it’s the treatment of individual animals that is important. A spokesperson said: “The primary purpose of the farrowing crate is to prevent the sow from rolling on and crushing her piglets (due to the sow being about 150 times the size of the piglets). The crate also enables stockpersons to work easily and safely around the sow and her piglets, during a time when sows can be particularly aggressive.”
Philip Lymbery of Compassion in World Farming hopes that Brexit will lead to a new policy direction, supported by political and public pressure: “We’re at a crossroads and have an opportunity to reinvent British food and farming. We can move towards a thriving countryside where farm animals are restored to the land.”