Wednesday, 17 January 2024

Pollution from free-range egg farms

I was interviewed by BBC Herefordshire about the scandal of pollution stemming from free-range egg farms, and River Action clipped the interview to make it available.

The Observer reported that free-range egg farms are polluting the Wye catchment. The Wye and Usk Foundation visited 49 free-range egg farms and discovered 19 had drains running from the poultry unit to a nearby watercourse, representing a clear pollution risk. This information was only brought to public attention thanks to a Freedom of Information request by River Action.

DEFRA then published a non-denial denial rebutting the story. In it, an anonymous Environment Agency spokesperson said ‘permitted farms are subject to regular inspections’.

This is disingenuous in the extreme. Why? Because only poultry farms with over 40,000 birds need a permit. Most free-range egg farms fall under this threshold. For example, most egg-layer sheds hold 12,000 or 16,000 birds and a number of farms have around 39,000 hens.

I recently asked the EA (via a Freedom of Information Request) how many farm inspections they’d conducted on non-permitted poultry farms in the Wye catchment from 2020-2023. Their answer was none. At least, not knowingly. To be precise, they said, “The Environment Agency does not regulate non permitted poultry units. We may carry out inspections as part of a general farm inspection but we would not keep numbers which would be readily available.”

So most free-range egg farms have gone without inspection, despite warnings for years about pollution coming from such farms.

Of permitted units (over 40k birds) supplying eggs in the Wye catchment, the EA told me they’d inspected 2 in 2020, 1 in 2021, 3 in 2022 and 3 in 2023. They didn’t know how many of those (if any) were free-range sites. They could all be from intensive indoor egg-layers.

I think Charles Watson from River Action is justified in accusing the EA of “scandalous neglect”.

DEFRA should admit they’ve not done enough and seek to do better. They should reduce the permit threshold so that units with fewer than 40,000 birds actually get inspected, and routinely. There’s an idea for the government’s promised ‘Plan for the Wye’, which is long-overdue.