The problem with Mega Dairies

Holding 1000+ cows in a very large shed and never letting them out into a field to graze naturally is clearly wrong. It is amazing that there is a view that maintains that this a reasonable thing to do. It reveals a utilitarian view of animals that is depressingly common and needs to be fought, which is why I believe this campaign is so important. However, the stress of being confined in a shed for the whole of their life is not the end of the suffering visited upon these cows. These are 24 hour operations so they are not allowed a normal diurnal rhythm of life. They are milked three times a day. They are fed a wholly unnatural diet which can lead to health problems. Ultimately they are exhausted by the age of 6 and killed (natural lfe span is 20+ years). On top of all the animal welfare concerns is the environmental damage they cause. A "dairy" of 1000+ cows can produce over 50,0000 cubic meters or 11,000,000 gallons of slurry per year... that is a lot of slurry! To put it in perspective, every day over 30,000 galleons of slurry needs to be found a home. That is a convoy of 7 large tankers of toxic soup. The environment simply cannot cope with the sustained volumes and as a result the slurry causes a catalogue of environmental damage and degradation as well as health problems for those that live nearby. There is more information in the Mega Dairies section of this site.

This campaign is initially about a slurry lagoon. But it won't stop there. It is also about sending a strong message that this sort of farming is unacceptable... and unnecessary! Please sign our Change.Org petition and Object (see red buttons below). Thank you!


The Beckland Mega-Dairy Slurry Lagoon - built without obtaining planning permission.

The slurry lagoon measures 140m by 86m. Which is the size of two olympic swimming pools and ten times as deep! And, if you can Adam and Eve it, it was built without planning permission in an area designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) over five years ago.

The background is that while investigating a pollution incident at Beckland Farm in North Devon the Environment Agency also discovered that there was insufficient slurry storage at the farm for the herd of 1000 cows held in the sheds there. Parkham Farms was therefore advised that it needed to increase the slurry storage facilities if was to maintain a herd of that size. So, instead of applying for planning permission Mr Willes just went ahead and built a vast slurry lagoon and claimed he was told to do so by the Environment Agency.

However, the regulations governing the storage of slurry are very clear and accessible and the Environment Agency is always available to advise. A responsible farmer would have ensured that the necessary slurry storage facilities were in place and authorised before increasing the herd size. There can be no doubt that Mr Willes was fully aware of the regulations while building up the herd to 1000 head during 2009/10. Especially as he had used these regulations to justify the building of the slurry lagoon at Sedborough Farm in 2008, which was also built without planning permission! He seems therefore to have chosen to ignore the regulations.

The background - Beckland Farm

Beckland Farm is a mega-dairy in Hartland, North Devon. It is owned by Mr Peter Willes of Parkham Farms. Mr Willes was the lead in the 2009/10 proposal to build a huge dairy 'farm' of 8000 cows in Noctcon, Lancashire (more info here). The proposal was widely condemned for reasons that fell broadly in to three categories: environmental, animal welfare and economic. The proposal was eventually scaled back but still, thankfully, the District Council refused it planning permission. Nocton had a lucky escape as Mr Willes' record for pollution is not one to be proud of.

Since then Parkham Farms has been building up herds of 1000+ cows here in North Devon that are subject to zero-grazing. It started not long before the Nocton proposal and has continued since then. There has been no attempt to have any dialogue with the community in North Devon. Quite the opposite. The technique adopted has been to just do it. Then, if caught out, apply for retrospective planning permission. Then after a several months or a lot longer, withdraw the application. Then resubmit... and so it goes on. The planning system is weak and a determined developer can manipulate and exploit it to avoid a determination. This is how five years have elapsed since the Beckland slurry lagoon was built. See the planning history.

The only reason there is an application now is due to the continuous pressure that resident have been putting on our District Council to stand up to this manipulation.

We do not need this kind of farming.

We do not need this kind of farming. The price of milk is dropping through the floor because there is a huge global over-supply and there has been for some years. It is simplistic to just blame the supermarkets and processors, though they are not entirely innocent. The current situation has been exacerbated by China's restrictions, Russian sanctions and the end of milk quotas... but the real problem is the over supply generated by farmers like Mr Willes. The positive feedback of falling prices due to oversupply, leading to yet larger production units with the inevitable increase in the oversupply problem has decimated the industry and caused endless hardship for responsible small scale farmers and their families. The small employment provided by these large industrial units is no compensation for the loss of livelihoods and the many other problems they cause.

As well as the environmental and economic issues there are the animal welfare issues. The method of farming used at Beckland Farm is often called zero-grazing because the cows are never allowed out to graze in a field. They are held in large sheds 24 hours a day, 7 days a week throughout the year. The cows are fed a diet to maximise milk yield which can lead to health problems. It is not a 'mootel' as Mr Willes would have it. It is a prison and not a very nice one at that. The dead eyes of the cows reveal a depression that is sad to see. It is in complete contrast to the Devon Reds (non-dairy cattle, but outside) in a nearby field that show playfulness, curiosity and a spectrum of social behaviours.

Help us stop this lagoon and start the fight to change planning policy and the law to make these farms unviable.

For instance, The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, Schedule 1, paragraphs 9 & 10 state:

Zero-grazing units clearly violate these provisions. These farms are not necessary and hence the suffering they cause is unnecessary. The suffering is beyond question and is well documented. They are therefore illegal under the provisions of the act. Futhermore, this should be a material planning consideration when determining applications (retrospective or otherwise) from zero-grazing operations.

And other farmers like Neil Darwent have shown that there is another way. Neil recently won the BBC Outstanding Farmer of the Year. Free range dairy is a pasture based system that is the antithesis of zero-grazing. The cows live a natural and happy life, it also brings environmental benefits (not costs) like diversity of wild flowers, it is good for ground-nesting birds, promotes insect life, bats... and all those things that are often distilled into the word 'biodiversity'. It is an important word as without biodiversity we cannot continue to exist!