In Herefordshire the river Wye curls through market towns, forests of oak and yellow fields tall with rapeseed. It is an area of outstanding natural beauty – walkers come to the area to traverse Offa’s Dyke, go fishing or catch a glimpse of herons, bats or polecats. Which makes the sight just down the road from the church in one small village somewhat unexpected.
A short walk along a public footpath a few miles from the river brings you to a field where large white polyethene tunnels stretch dozens of metres down a hill. They are met at the bottom by five mammoth sheds – each as long as a football pitch. Tall metal silos rise up from between the imposing units.
It looks like something out of a sci-fi film – but it is in fact a typical modern UK farm. Inside the warehouse walls, nearly 800,000 chickens are being bred for slaughter at any one time.
This facility is one of nearly 1,700 intensive poultry and pig farms licensed by the Environment Agency. A Bureau investigation shows that the number of such farms in the UK has increased by a quarter in the last six years.
Many of these units like the one in Herefordshire are giant US-style “megafarms”. Our investigation has discovered there now nearly 800 of these throughout the UK. The biggest house more than a million chickens, 20,000 pigs or 2,000 dairy cows, in sprawling factory units where most animals are confined indoors.
The growth in intensive farms is concentrated in certain parts of the country where major food companies operate and many are in the process of expanding. In Herefordshire, intensively-farmed animals outnumber the human population by 88 to one.
The two biggest farms we have recorded have the capacity to house 1.7 million and 1.4 million chickens apiece.
Behind the data lies a fundamental debate about what we want to eat as a nation, and what price we are prepared to pay for that food.