Opposition to ‘free range’ chicken units highlights divide between farmers and public
It’s time for the ‘free range eggs’ labelling rules to be changed because — quite legally — ‘free range’ eggs now usually come from vast, intensive, indoor units which have exits so that some birds can get outside, but many never see daylight. Imagine you are at the centre of a dense crowd of 32,500 people: how easy would it be to reach the exit? See the Carmarthenshire Herald, September 9th 2016, p.3
Two 32,000 ‘free range’ chicken units are planned for the Tywi Valley in east Carmarthenshire. Their combined output could reach 20 million eggs a year.
One is for Mr Terry Davies on land north of Glanmyddyfi, Pentrefelin, Llandeilo, and the other is for T V Hughes & Co at Godre Garreg, off Carreg-Sawdde common, Llangadog.
Residents living nearby generally oppose the plans strongly, but other farmers and people and organisations connected with agriculture often give their support.
What is ‘free range’? Probably not what you think
The Llangadog application, for a unit of 32,000 hens, was submitted in September 2015 and validated on April 21 2016, but has not yet been determined by Carmarthenshire County Council’s planning committee. This scheme has attracted both large numbers of objections and letters of support – around 40 separate objections and almost as many expressions of support.
The unit, clad in green box profile, would be 140 metres long, 20 metres wide, 3.1 metres high to the eaves and 5.8 metres to the ridge line. There would be four feed hoppers, each 8.75 metres high.
Much of the objection centres on the industrial nature of the plan. Despite the permitted label ‘free range’, which suggests hens wandering wherever they want, these hens would be housed in layers in a large building where they are in theory free to move around, but as each hen has only a square foot or so of floor space, free movement is difficult. Nevertheless, the ‘free range’ label accords with current regulations.
For 32,000 ‘free range’ hens, outdoor space of 13 hectares (32 acres) is required, but there are no regulations to say how often the birds must be outside. During daylight hours there must be open ‘popholes’ in their building, but the greater the number of hens, the smaller the chance of them finding and using the ‘popholes’.
Inside a ‘free range’ egg-laying unit, the following rules apply, according to the RSPCA:
- Each bird to have at least 250 sq cm (0.269 of a sq foot) of litter space.
- No more than nine birds per square metre
- 10 cm of feeder space for each bird
- At least one drinker for every 10 birds
- One nest for every seven birds, or 1 sq metre of nest space for every 120 birds
- Water and feeding troughs must be raised off the ground
‘Free range’ eggs account for 47% of the 10.02 billion produced in the UK annually, according to the British Egg Information Service. That means between 192 million and 193 million free-range eggs produced every week. This number is too great to come from small flocks scratching about at leisure outdoors in the countryside.
Hens can normally live for 10 to 12 years, but their lifespan in a ‘free range’ unit is much shorter. Generally they are disposed of at 72 weeks, when the number of eggs they lay starts to wane.
Support for farm diversification
At Godre Garreg, the letters of support indicate that the egg unit would be run eventually by Aaron Hughes, an agricultural student at Coleg Sir Gar. Many of the letters on file in the county council’s planning department point out that the unit would enable him to stay on the family farm, which might otherwise not be able to support him. Mary Richards, assistant curriculum head, Department of Landbased Studies, Coleg Sir Gar, wrote that “Aaron epitomises what rural West Wales needs – a bright, enthusiastic, motivated, Welsh to the core young farmer”.
Both the farming unions, the NFU and the FUW, are in favour. David Waters, Carmarthenshire county executive officer for the FUW (Farmers Union of Wales), submitted that “It is imperative that potential employment opportunities are explored in all aspects of the rural economy and this proposed development ticks the boxes in many of these areas.”
The submission from the National Farmers Union’s group secretary in Llandeilo, G J Davies, said: “You will be aware that the farming industry continues to face formidable challenges with market volatility, high input prices and increasing regulation. In response to these challenges farmers have to grow, adapt and diversify their businesses so that they can remain viable. NFU Cymru would, therefore, emphasise the need for the planning system to support such development.”
Many of the scheme supporters are from beyond the Tywi valley, and represent other egg units, suppliers to the poultry industry, the veterinary sector, accountancy, and farmers arguing the necessity of diversification. The objectors are more local and fear environmental and economic damage that, in their view, outweighs the advantages for the Hughes family.
Opponents of the scheme have worries about pollution, flooding, traffic, smell, waste disposal, and the impacts on landscape and wildlife.
Sir Edward Dashwood, representing the Golden Grove and Abercothi estates in the Tywi valley, is concerned about the risk of waste or other pollutants entering the nearby rivers. The unit would be located near the Tywi and its tributary the Sawdde, “both only a field or two away from the site”. Sir Edward points out that the Tywi valley is vulnerable to high rainfall and to flooding.
Derek and Lesley Stone, of Ty Newydd, Llangadog, had moved to their home, with a boundary only some eight metres from the proposed building, just six weeks before the planning application was submitted. They intended a B&B, camping and caravanning tourism enterprise. “With a development like this we fear that our business will not survive because of the visual impact of the unit, the smells and the noise, extra traffic over the common, not to mention the vermin,” they wrote to the planning department. They also said: “The unit will be right on our boundary and although in the planning application it states no property overlooks the unit, it can be seen from both of the rooms that we intend to use for our guests.”
Llangadog Community Council feels that the “current proposed location for a poultry unit of this size and scale is inappropriate due to its close proximity to several neighbouring properties” and has worries about noise, smell and visual amenity.
Llandeilo county councillor Edward Thomas is concerned that “32,000 birds would be producing large amounts of livestock manure and there is a danger that if there are not enough safeguards that this manure could enter the Tywi and cause pollution problems along the length of the river”.
Local county councillor Andrew James is requesting that the application be called in for consideration by the whole planning committee.
More manure management questions
On the other side of the Tywi on farmland north of Glanmyddyfi, Pentrefelin, off the A40 just beyond the Cottage Inn, two miles west of Llandeilo, Mr Terry Davies has applied a second time for a 32,000 bird unit, to add to one at Llanfynydd for which he received permission in 2011.
The building would be 73 metres long and 39.5 metres wide, with two feed silos and eight exhaust air stacks. Manure from the birds would be spread every four days. Changes to the junction of the lane from Glanmyddyfi at the main A40 would be necessary, to allow for large vehicles coming and going.
The application, dated June 30 and validated on August 11, has drawn several objections. Mr Rhys Phillips, living at Pentrefelin near the proposed site, argues that “the increased traffic will use the narrow lanes servicing Capel Isaac and will enter and exit at the A40 junction”. He continues: “This will be expected to accommodate the transport of 210,000 eggs a week and allow about 32 tons of feed in.”
Each year some 1,344 tons of excreta would be produced, Mr Phillips calculated. Most would be removed and spread elsewhere, but between 2.5 and 5.5 tonnes a week would remain, creating “enormous pollution potential”, in Mr Phillips’ view, because “it is on a flood plain which slopes towards the Afon Myddyfi about five metres away from the site”. The Myddyfi flows into the Tywi just over a mile distant.
Natural Resources Wales is not happy. “We have significant concerns regarding the proposal as submitted and consider that there is currently insufficient information to assess the potential impacts on protected sites and the management of manure from the proposed unit. We require this additional information before we can provide you with detailed comments on the application,” commented Jonathan Scott, team leader in the Development Planning section, in his submission to the planning authority.
Both the Llangadog and Glanmyddyfi units could each produce between nine and 10 million eggs a year, possibly more. The boost to agricultural productivity is real and valuable to farmers, but also damaging to community relations, to nearby tourism enterprises, and possibly to the environment too.