As ‘mega-farms’ have proliferated in the USA over the years, many within the industry there have argued that large, modern farm systems are necessary to ensure high standards, food security and economic viability, while campaigners disagree, claiming that it is bad for people, animals and the environment.
While even the biggest agricultural operations in this country are relatively dwarfed by the intensive operations in the US, where anything up to a million chickens and thousands of pigs and cows can be housed on single farms, new research shows that the UK countryside is now home to nearly 800 farms termed as intensive.
According to the Environment Agency - and its regional counterparts - which regulate large livestock farms, a facility is classed as such if it has 40,000 poultry birds, 2,000 pigs or 700 sows or more.
An analysis of official figures reveals the number of facilities meeting that threshold in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has risen overall by 25 per cent since 2011 to 792 - with more than 20 understood to be in Lancashire.
Among the farming operations termed ‘intensive’ under the current UK figures is Moss Rose Piggeries in the Fylde countryside close to the M55 on the outskirts of Blackpool.
Established for more than six decades and run by father and son Raymond and Wayne Baguley, it falls into that category as it houses some 2,300 pigs.
But Raymond, who founded the business back in 1954 and at 83 in still very much involved in the day-to-day operation, says welfare of the animals in the families’ charge has always been essential to the operation - and that the rules in place via the various agencies involved would allow nothing less.
“I have always been a great believer that the pigs need to be looked after - the best attention allows them to thrive and thriving pigs means successful business for us.” he said.
“Certainly at this time of year, we keep them outdoors as much as we can and the number in each pen is very strictly regulated.”
Until just under 20 years ago, there was a breeding operation at Moss Rose, but since 1999, Raymond and Wayne - who employ three staff at the piggeries - take pigs from a specialist breeder elsewhere in Fylde at 40 kilos weight and then keep them until they have grown to 115 kilos, which usually takes a few months.
Then they go off to an abattoir at Colne, which supplies bacon to a major supermarket chain.
“The animals’ welfare and the whole operation here has to be maintained to he highest possible standard,” said Wayne, 58, who has spent his entire life working in the family business.
“The pigs have scheduled inspections by vets four times a year and a quality assurance inspector can call at any time.
“Even after the animals have gone to slaughter, if the slightest problem is highlighted at the abattoir, we know we can have an inspector here to see us in less than two hours.
“Heath and safety is very important - some might say it has gone too far in some cases but the rules are there and it is vital to the business that we adhere to them.”
But, despite obvious misgivings from animal welfare charities such as the Compassion in World Farming organisation, about the principal of ‘mega-farm’ operations, the National Farmers Union (NFU) is quick to stress that the situation is perfectly well policed to ensure the highest possible standards of welfare for animals as well as continuing good business for farmers.
Carl Hudspith, the NFU’s North West regional communications adviser, said: “Statistics from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) show that total number of poultry in the UK increased by three per cent to almost 173 million birds in 2016, compared with 2015.
“The UK’s self-sufficiency in food has fallen from 75 per cent in 1991 to 61 per cent now so this increase is good news for the British public, who want to buy more British food.
“This increase would have been achieved under a range of farming systems, including free-range poultry meat and egg production.
”Lancashire is home to a diverse range of farming businesses, including many free-range poultry farms.
“The new research claiming a rise in what is termed intensive farming do not cover any poultry businesses under 40,000 birds established during that period, so it therefore does not follow that there has necessarily been a rise in intensive farming in the region over this period.
“British farmers produce high quality food to exacting welfare and environmental standards.
“The significant factor is not the size of the farm but the quality of management and stockmanship that farm operates to.
“Farmers work to UK and EU environmental regulations, not USA environmental regulations, and these regulations are some of the highest in the world.
“For example, applicants for environmental permits have to carry out a full environmental impact assessment, demonstrating that any proposed development will not cause problems with odour, noise and emissions.”
Chris Hambley, Fylde Council’s environmental health manager, said: “There’s no licence issued by borough councils such as ours in relation to intensive farming.
“Other than any appropriate planning permissions, a number of agencies would be involved - the Environment Agency from a permitting side, Lancashire County Council Trading Standards and DEFRA from an animal welfare aspect, while the Health and Safety Executive are the enforcing authority in relation to health and safety.”
Babs Murphy, chief executive of the North and Western Lancashire Chamber of Commerce said: “The rich farming heritage in Lancashire has resulted in the establishment of a wealth of successful businesses.
“It is a significant sector which not only produces the food we eat it supports a number of industries including food processing, packaging and freight.
“It also underpins an important supply chain in its own right and keeps many firms in work such as vets, plumbers and electricians.”