A battle is under way in the British countryside to fight off plans for massive factory farms that would house thousands of animals in industrialised units without access to traditional grazing or foraging.
Plans for three large-scale units in England have encountered fierce resistance from campaigners who say they would cause extra noise, smell and disruption and cause more stress and disease for animals.
Animal welfare organisations fear the proposals are signs that a new intensive system of agriculture could soon replace the UK's patchwork of small livestock farms.
In the past three months, plans have been brought forward for an 8,000-cow dairy farm at Nocton in Lincolnshire and a 3,000-cow unit at South Witham, also Lincolnshire. Both have been withdrawn following fierce opposition. The Independent has learnt of another intensive factory farm proposal, for a 2,500-sow pig unit at Foston in Derbyshire.
The proposals dwarf the size of current livestock farms. The Nocton dairy farm would have been the largest dairy farm in western Europe, 66 times larger than the average UK herd of 120 animals – and four times the size of the largest existing herd of 2,000. Likewise, the South Witham farm would have been 50 per cent larger than the largest dairy herd, if it had been adopted.
The animal welfare group Viva believes the Foston pig farm would be the largest in the UK. When taking into account the litters of the sows which would be raised to maturity before slaughter, the unit would contain about 20,000 pigs at any one time.
The animals would be kept inside for all or almost all of the year, compared with more traditional forms of agriculture. Around a third of pigs across the country are kept outdoors. The overwhelming majority of cows have regular access to grazing. Currently only 1 per cent are kept in housed "zero-grazing" units.
Villagers have objected to the arrival of such large industrialised animal units. After 600 objections were lodged against the Nocton proposal, Nocton Dairies Ltd withdrew its plans. It is expected to submit a revised proposal at a later date. Following stiff opposition, Velmur Ltd also withdrew its plans for South Witham, saying it was too close to local homes.
Some 1,640 objections have been made so far to South Derbyshire District Council about the Foston pig farm.
Compassion in World Farming and the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) believe new plans for large dairy units will emerge in coming months as farmers seek to survive ultra-thin margins .
Suzi Morris, UK director of WSPA, said: "There's nothing on this scale in the UK. The 8,000-cow proposal for Nocton would be the largest herd in western Europe. The average herd size in the UK is 100 to 120 cows. There are herds of 1,000 and some pushing 2,000 but 3,000 would be a departure.
"It's all being driven by economies of scale," she added. "We have been importing a lot of milk and the UK dairy industry has been undermined and conventional dairy farmers have been going out of business.
"We believe that animals should be farmed for food but we don't agree there can be any justification, economic or otherwise, for the commoditisation of animals and their housing in such large units."
In the US there is a term for such large farms – Cafo (Concentrated Animal feeding Operation).
Justin Kerswell, campaigns manager at Viva said: "It is sadly ironic that with films such as Food Inc hitting the headlines, there is a move to bring American-style mega factory-farming to this country. However, it would be wrong to think that we don't have intensive farming here already.
"Most broiler chicken production is already highly intensive, as is most pig farming. But, with the proposed Foston development, it appears we are moving to an unprecedented level. Along with the rush to introduce American-style zero-grazing dairy units into this country, it is fast becoming a juggernaut that has to be stopped."
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