Intensive poultry units

Intensive poultry unit
Intensive poultry unit

Intensive farming is highlighting the tension between cheap food, animal welfare and pollution.

In Herefordshire we are facing an increasing battle between commercial enterprise that wants to produce increasing volumes of cheap food on an industrial scale and the resultant intrusion on landscape, animal wellbeing and river pollution.

Shocking as it is to see these giant steel sheds in the countryside, their visual impact is not the only concern: like many other industrial operations, intensive poultry units produce many undesirable impacts, which in any other industry would be confined to a brownfield site.

Industrial or farming?

The Environment Agency categorises intensive poultry units as industrial installations and the planning system recognises their huge potential impacts on the environment: an intensive poultry development to house more than 85,000 birds falls under Schedule One of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011, the same category as a new airport or a nuclear power plant. (An average broiler unit houses 45,000 to 50,000 birds and most planning applications are for four or more units so most intensive poultry units fall under Schedule One, as does any pig unit that houses more than 3,000 pigs for fattening.)

But there is an anomaly in the planning system: because intensive poultry units are considered to be farm diversification, there is a presumption that they should be located in the countryside.

Planning and IPUs

Planning applications for intensive poultry units will address the most significant impacts – traffic, noise, odour, dust, and so on – but because the principle that such development is allowed in rural areas is already established, planning authorities are obliged to agree ways of reducing the harm and can only refuse planning permission if it would not be possible to mitigate the harm to the landscape and environment. Mitigate does not mean prevent or avoid, it means reduce to an unspecified degree.

As a consequence, to comment adequately demands a considerable amount of time, often requiring research of comparable applications and decisions. An objection needs to be related to current local and or national planning policies.

Density in Herefordshire

Herefordshire already has one of the highest densities of intensive poultry units of any county – with more than 1,000 birds per square km (source: Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board) – and the council has received planning applications for more.

In Herefordshire’s case, the industry is driven by the presence of the US conglomerate Cargill, which has a processing plant in Hereford and a feed mill in Allensmore. Farmers erect and manage the buildings themselves, meaning that Cargill itself does not have to invest in land or buildings, although it employs the drivers and workers who catch the grown birds by their thousands at night.

Increased traffic from IPUs

The broiler industry adds very large vehicle movements (one 4-shed development can generate up to 3,000 HGV movements) on to Herefordshire’s roads every year: the eggs are laid on one farm and then delivered to a hatchery in another part of the county, day-old chicks are delivered to the broiler units on farms across the region where they grow for around four weeks before being transported to Hereford for slaughter and processing. The finished products are then delivered to their final destination, which may be abroad.

Cargill also owns a hatchery at Shobdon in the north of Herefordshire and a feed mill at Allensmore in the south of the county, which provides the feed to broiler units across the West Midlands region. The broiler diet is predominantly soy, which is imported from plantations owned by Cargill in South America.

But it is the taxpayer who pays for the highway improvements and maintenance needed to support all this traffic. Farmers do not pay business rates on intensive poultry unit buildings.

Waste and water courses

We are also very concerned about the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste produced by poultry units in Herefordshire and surrounding counties. Much of this is spread on fields as fertiliser with the risk that nutrients and toxins get into the rivers, causing pollution. The growth in the industry has coincided with a rise in phosphate levels in the River Wye Special Area of Conservation and the River Lugg, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Poultry litter contains more phosphorus than any other farm manure as well as arsenic and other residues. For more information on water quality and phosphate levels, go to phosphate pollution.

The intensity of the production process increases every year as the industry produces birds that reach ‘maturity’ ever more quickly, with chickens reaching ‘table-weight’ just 19 days from hatching. This can only increase the amounts of manure produced.

The future

We are campaigning for a change in planning policy to recognise that intensive poultry units are industrial development, with impacts as harmful as other large industries, and that they should be located on brownfield land with good transport connections, away from people’s homes and on sites where the landscape would not be harmed. Basically, not in the open countryside.

We would like the industry to re-think its model and operate more sustainably by locating all the different processes – egg-laying, hatching, growing, feed production and so on – if not in a single location, at least in close proximity to one another.

If you become aware of an application in the area and would like our advice, please give us as much notice as possible to allow the production of a suitable objection.