FARMERS running two poultry businesses where evidence was found of widespread suffering and risks to human health are aiming to open a third – giant – chicken farm, prompting angry objections.
Undercover investigators at one unit found birds showing signs of serious welfare problems.
At both businesses, the investigators also saw dead chickens piled up, exposed to the open air, which they said was illegal and posed a hazard to human and wildlife health. Birds were also seen collapsing under their own body weight.
But the bosses of the firm now want to build a third centre, which would rear more than a million-and-a-half birds each year.
The chickens at H Barker’s main location were kept in “cramped” sheds, with very little room to move around.
There were distressing scenes of animal suffering, including birds with missing feathers and raw skin
– Animal Aid investigator
Opponents of the plan say given the state of the existing farms, they have little confidence that animal-welfare and public health standards would be better at the new one.
H Barker and Son, of York, have applied for permission to build a farm at Rufforth, Yorkshire, with six poultry buildings, feed silos and biomass boilers, where up to 1,785,600 chickens a year would be housed before being sent to slaughter.
Investigators for campaign group Animal Aid who visited the company’s two other plants said they saw “distressing scenes of animal suffering, including birds with missing feathers and raw, sore-looking skin, birds with hock burns (caused by the filthy bedding) and birds collapsing under their excessive body weight.
This happens when chickens are fattened intensively so they can be sent to slaughter as soon as possible. It means they grow too quickly for their brittle leg bones to support them.
The investigators at one site said: “Outside the farm was a pile of dead chickens, left exposed to the open air.”
Hock burns are caused by ammonia from the birds’ waste on the bedding on which birds are forced to stand.
Animal Aid is calling on people to lodge objections with York City Council before Wednesday’s deadline.
Egg farm plan withdrawn
Momentum against keeping animals in cages has been growing this year. Earlier this month, separate plans for a giant egg farm in Kent were withdrawn after thousands of people objected. The farm had been billed as “free-range” but there were fears that the hens would have been kept in crowded sheds, with only limited outside access.
Charity Compassion in World Farming argues that Britain should be moving towards higher-welfare farms.
Campaigners say confining animals in small spaces is not just cruel because it deprives them of the freedom to display natural behaviour, but it also allows disease to spread.
“Diseases such as avian flu, campylobacter and salmonella can be transmitted to human workers, or transferred on their clothing, and carried out into the wider community, putting lives at risk,” said an Animal Aid spokeswoman.
She added that it was not clear how the new unit would deal with the vast quantities of dirty litter and water that would be created, and there are fears that spreading the water over nearby farmland could “spread dangerous pathogens”, risk algae blooms and endanger wildlife.
Dying in sheds
At any one time, 288,000 chickens would be housed at Rufforth, and with only “two-and-a-half” staff, Animal Aid says ensuring the birds’ welfare at all times would be impossible.
The planning application acknowledges that large numbers of birds would die before they could be taken for slaughter, the group said, and company photographs at Bowland Farm – one of those investigated – suggested that 1,590 birds had died in the 31 days they had been kept there.
Neighbours are objecting to the noise, traffic, smells, the fact that it would be on green belt land, the effect on the landscape of new buildings and the risk of dirty water getting into drainage systems and harming wildlife including fish, ducks, geese, water hens, coots, frogs, toads, water voles and grass snakes.
Isobel Hutchinson, of Animal Aid, said: “Our investigation shows that H Barker and Son should never be allowed to build a new chicken farm. Quite apart from the terrible scenes of animal suffering that we filmed, it would seem this company cannot be trusted to follow basic regulations for disposing safely of dead animals — a failure that poses a serious risk to public health.”
H Barker and Son could not be contacted at time of publication for comment.