Thursday, 15 July 2021

Counting Chickens

As part of my research for Rivercide, I’ve spent a lot of time digging into exactly how many chickens there are in the Wye catchment.

The stars of our programme were Christine Hugh-Jones, an activist with the Brecon and Radnor branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, and Alison Caffyn, who wrote her PhD thesis at Cardiff University about the intensive poultry industry.

Christine and Alison have been keeping a tally of chicken numbers in the counties of Powys in Wales and Herefordshire in England by trawling through all the planning applications on the councils’ websites and records – and doing further research, including by Google satellite, to check on whether older units are still in operation or not.

They undertook this forensic and painstaking work because they couldn’t see that anybody else was doing it. They believe that the cumulative impact of all these birds in a concentrated area matters – for ammonia impacts, for risks of avian flu, for its effect on the environment and local residents and for the levels of chicken manure that contribute to the overload of phosphorous in the Wye and its tributaries.

Christine and Alison estimate that there are around 20 million chickens in the Wye catchment.

Christine counted over 10 million birds in Powys, with over 4 million of them residing in the Wye catchment area.

Alison totted up the total number of birds in Herefordshire and estimates that there are over 17 million, with just under 16 million in the Wye catchment’s area of the county.

They turned their data into a very helpful map showing the locations of the intensive poultry units with information about how many buildings and birds were registered at each spot.

I wanted to know whether the authorities had any comparable records or official data.

Natural Resources Wales told me that they don’t monitor the total number of chickens in the Wye catchment. Nor do they have a map of the poultry units. However, units with more than 40,000 birds require a permit to operate and NRW have records for those. They told me that their 30 units with permits in the Welsh Wye catchment have a total of 4.5 million places, though pointed out that not all these units will be fully stocked at all times. That said, they stressed, “it’s important to note that poultry units which house over 40,000 chickens make up a small proportion of the total number of poultry units in the catchment. The overall number of chickens housed in the catchment is therefore significantly higher than the 4.5m housed in permitted units. We don’t hold information on the number of chickens in the unpermitted units as we don’t have a direct role in monitoring those units under current regulations.”

Did you get that? NRW say that there are ‘significantly’ more than 4.5 million chickens on the Welsh side of the Wye catchment. So their estimate exceeds Christine’s!

Powys County Council simply said that they don’t hold the data I requested and suggested that I could search for poultry on their log of planning applications. This would entail doing the laborious work that Christine and her comrades have already done. Clearly nobody at Powys County Council is even attempting to keep count, which begs the question, how on earth can they assess the cumulative impact of poultry developments? The answer is that they can’t.

Meanwhile on the English side of the border, I recently received some rather illuminating responses.

The Environment Agency told me that, like Natural Resources Wales, they only have records for their permitted sites, which are those containing over 40,000 birds. They said they have 84 permitted sites in Herefordshire with an estimated total of 16,891,696 birds. Again, as this figure doesn’t include the smaller poultry units, the true total will be higher. They don’t have a breakdown for the Wye catchment but I note that their total for the county, just in the permitted units, is approaching 17 million making Alison’s estimate of over 17 million chickens for all sizes of units in the whole of Herefordshire look conservative.

Herefordshire Council have been working hard to find out how many chickens could be in the county – revealing, in the process, that they haven’t expressed much curiosity before and clearly haven’t been keeping count. A dereliction of their planning duty to assess cumulative impact. Still, last week they shared data which they obtained from Defra’s Animal and Plant Health Agency which keeps records for the purpose of assessing for animal disease outbreaks and the like. From this data, they’ve estimated that there are approximately 16 million chickens in Herefordshire, including small producers as well as large commercial units. This breaks down as: 14,543,420 meat rearing chickens; 606,931 egg laying chickens; and 1,088,372 breeding for egg laying.

So those figures are a little lower than the Environment Agency’s figures, but still in the same ballpark and add weight to Alison’s estimates.   The most extraordinary part of all this is that the Nutrient Management Board – a body set up in 2014 to address the concentration of phosphorous in the river Wye – released a draft Nutrient Management Plan a few weeks ago which stated:

“There are 195 Intensive Poultry Units in the Wye catchment, with more than 9m birds generating 2040 tonnes of phosphate per year, most of which is spread on farmland as fertiliser”

I suppose “more than 9 million” could mean 20 million. But it seems rather disingenuous.

Where did that figure come from? Were the authors of the Nutrient Management Action Plan deliberately seeking to misrepresent the scale of the intensive poultry industry in the Wye catchment or are they that ignorant of the facts?

Either way, it’s a damning example of institutional failure.

PS – I’d really like to know the source for that 9 million. Where did it come from? Please contact me if you know!

UPDATE: I’ve since been informed that the 9 million figure in the NMB’s draft report was based on 2010 farm census data and has now been removed. It’s likely that their forthcoming report will confirm that there are an estimated 20 million birds in the Wye catchment.