Darrell Shephard and his family had been living in Berriew, a small village in rural Powys, for 12 years when the owners of Groes-y-Garreg farm, just up the road, put in a planning application to be allowed to raise 100,000 chickens.
“There are 14 family homes within 500 metres, and ours is 300 metres from the farm, which is traditionally a dairy,” Shephard told the Guardian. “I understand why many farmers need to diversify, but I had no idea about intensive chicken farming until it came to my doorstep. This isn’t farming, it’s a large, busy 24/7 automated factory.”
The county of Powys runs from the Brecon Beacons up to brooding Snowdonia. But these days, with an almost 100% increase in intensive farming since 2011, it is known as the “poultry capital of Wales”. There are now 116 intensive poultry units (IPUs) in the county, each raising more than 40,000 birds. With an estimated 8.5 million chickens on permitted units in Powys, that is 64 times more chickens than people.
Large-scale intensive pig and poultry facilities require a permit from the Environment Agency to operate. In Wales these are issued by Natural Resources Wales (NRW). Of the 36 permits issued since 2017, 29 (81%) have been in Powys and concerned residents are campaigning to stop them.
“We moved here for a peaceful rural lifestyle,” says Shephard. “But if this chicken factory gets built it will be no different to living in an industrial area. Our narrow village roads are totally unsuitable and the noise will keep us awake. Other people near these complain of unbearable smells and fly swarms too.” The Guardian was unable to reach the owners of Groes-y-Garreg farm for comment. The company who made the application for the farm had no comment to make.
The residents of Berriew are not the only ones opposing IPUs in Powys – others include the Llanerchydol residents who are resisting plans for a “mega farm” unit for 15,000 birds at Frochas, and residents near Llangadfan who are trying to stop a 120,000-chicken facility.
Surge in poultry farms
Supporters of intensive farming say the developments create much-needed diversification for farmers, as well as employment and support for the local economy. US poultry conglomerate Avara Foods recently invested in two new chicken-rearing units in Powys.
The National Farmers’ Union says uncertainty over farming subsidies post-Brexit and increased demand has seen farmers diversify, to poultry especially. Its chief poultry adviser, Gary Ford, says: “This is an attractive industry for both existing farmers and new entrants to move into.”
But Jill Kibble from the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales says farmers have also been targeted by aggressive marketing campaigns with agents literally knocking on doors: “Some are actively persuading farmers into applying for intensive units regardless of the availability of an appropriate site.”
But it is not just regulated farms causing the problems. At present, only pig and poultry facilities housing more than 2,000 pigs, 750 breeding sows or 40,000 birds require an environmental impact assessment from NRW. The problem for the Powys community, however, is that the region has also seen the growth of unregulated poultry farms, producing broilers and free-range eggs. Such units only require planning permission.
“Small villages are being ringed with units,” says Kibble. “Llanwnog has five, with another in planning and Llanfair Caereinion and Meifod have numerous units too. It’s essential that all potential impacts are looked at in combination and determinations made on the basis of independent expert analysis.”
Risk to human health and wildlife
Intensive poultry operations have been linked to local biodiversity damage from ammonia emissions. Simon Bareham, principal air quality adviser at NRW, says: “The rise of IPUs in the region is totally unprecedented and in areas like Powys, we know the ammonia is coming from poultry – its levels have reverted to those in 1990. The rapid expansion of the poultry industry poses the greatest short-term threat to biodiversity in Wales that I have experienced in over 30 years.”
Meanwhile a 2017 report by the Institute for Risk Assessment Sciences says that residents and farmers near intensive units are at increased risk of harmful bacteria, infectious diseases, viruses and air pollutants: “The current situation in densely populated livestock farming areas could be regarded as a ‘natural experiment'”, it concluded.
In 2018, the Welsh government told local planning authorities to exercise particular care when considering developments that would bring livestock units within close proximity to homes, schools and hospitals. It recently set up an intensive agriculture working group to advise on development policies.
A Welsh government spokesperson said: “We want to promote sustainable agriculture across Wales and we are looking at how local planning authorities plan for new intensive farming developments. We will issue further guidance on intensive farming later this year.”
Powys county council says that cumulative impacts are now being taken into account when determining planning applications.
A spokesperson said: “The planning application currently remains pending and the local planning authority is working with the evidence provided in conjunction with its consultees towards making an informed decision in line with planning policy and guidance. The planning process allows members of the public to view the information submitted in support of the application and to make comments. Such comments are also taken into account in the decision making process in so far as they are relevant and material.”
However, Russell George, the Welsh assembly member for Montgomeryshire, says communities have yet to witness any change – of the two environmental permits issued to IPUs this year, both are near other poultry units, and a Powys county council planning meeting heard in February that the authority is not currently monitoring the numbers of IPUs in the region, and has given planning permission for a new 100,000-broiler unit at Lower Trederwen farm.
Bareham says: “Someone in the planning system has to ask when is enough enough? How many poultry units are we going to have in Powys?”
For Darrell Shephard and the residents of Berriew, any changes may be too late: “If I wanted to build a factory in the same location, the same size, pumping out pollution, it would be laughed out of planning. We can only hope that Powys planning is becoming more informed about the negative impacts of IPUs. If this factory gets planning permission it will benefit one local family while causing misery to many others.”