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Shocking rise in US-style megafarms across the UK revealed in new data

News Section Icon Published 13/02/2024

A new investigation commissioned by Compassion in World Farming reveals a shocking 20% increase in the number of US-style megafarms – large-scale intensive farming units – compared with 2016 figures. The full picture of all the UK factory farm data has been pulled together into an interactive map, launched today (13th February). It illustrates the startlingly high numbers of livestock reared indoors or without access to pasture, in the biggest farming units across the UK, at any one time.

The release of the data coincides with the 10th anniversary of ‘Farmageddon - The True Cost of Meat’ written by Compassion’s Global CEO, Philip Lymbery, and reveals that the UK Government continues to allow the controversial industrial factory farming sector to expand, despite its negative impact to animal, human and environmental health.

The map shows ‘hotspot’ counties where large numbers of dairy cows, laying hens, broiler chickens and pigs are permanently housed indoors or without access to pasture, as well as overall numbers of confined livestock per region.

Surprisingly, many counties associated with open green pastures and extensive grazing are in fact some of the areas with the highest numbers of confined farm animals. Lincolnshire, Shropshire, Norfolk, ranked first, second and third respectively with Herefordshire and North Yorkshire also making the top ten. Cumulatively the figure for the top three counties shows they have capacity to confine over 86 million animals. Excluding a minority kept in higher welfare conditions [2] for example RSPCA Assured indoor chicken, pigmeat or eggs, these animals are likely to suffer from a plethora of health and welfare issues due to breeding for high performance and living in barren and caged or overcrowded conditions.

Comparing these results with data from 2016 reveals a concerning trend in the growth of intensive agriculture in rural areas. In 2016, there were at total of 974 pig and poultry US-style mega farms in the UK compared with 1,176 in 2023 – an increase of 20% over a seven-year period. In addition, our data shows that the UK’s largest, intensive farms that require Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR) to rear pigs and poultry have increased by 12% between 2016 and 2023 across the UK.

This rise contradicts the assurances made by Former Environment Secretary, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP in July 2017 when he stated: “One thing is clear: I do not want to see, and we will not have, US-style farming in this country. The future for British farming is in quality and provenance, maintaining high environmental and animal welfare standards.” [1]

Whilst the UK often claims to have the highest standards in animal welfare worldwide, around 85% of farm animals – over one billion animals – are kept in factory farms per year. In these farms, animals can spend their lives in barren barns or cages, suffering from overcrowding, often lacking access to fresh air and natural daylight.

The rise of factory farming, enabling the production of ‘cheap’ meat, has led to overconsumption in many countries around the world including the UK with diets high in red and processed meat, in particular, linked to a number of serious health-related conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer.

Keeping hundreds of thousands of animals in cramped and crowded spaces creates the perfect breeding ground for diseases to spread and evolve. Consequently, animals are often routinely medicated with antibiotics to avoid disease, contributing to antibiotic resistance with a knock-on effect to human health and animal health. Intensive factory farms also increase the risk of zoonotic diseases, such as avian and swine flu, creating future pandemics. Raising animals in this way is putting us all at risk.

The current agricultural system is also driving climate change, impacting on nature and is the main cause of river pollution.

Anthony Field, Head of Compassion in World Farming’s UK Office said: “Megafarms are often hidden from public view. This Investigation shines a spotlight on their rising numbers, clearly illustrating the desperate, broken, and unsustainable food system we have created.

 “Enough is enough. The spread of industrial farming must stop. This intensive method of producing food must be revised in line with the UK Government-commissioned National Food Strategy, with farmers given help to transition to a more sustainable land use.

 “Megafarms blight local communities who complain of the pervasive stench, noise and bio-diversity loss. And rivers are polluted due to excess manure and agricultural run-off. Local government is on the front line in granting planning permission for new units but unfortunately, they are often not aware that animal welfare and climate change issues can be a material consideration in every planning decision.

 “We urge the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to strengthen the law and issue guidance for local government to urgently clear this matter up.

 Compassion is calling on the public to contact the Ministers responsible for planning to strengthen the law to take it beyond doubt that animal welfare and climate change can be material considerations in every single planning decision. This will ensure that, where communities are overwhelmed by factory farms, local authorities can reject planning applications for even more of them.

For more information or to arrange an interview please email or call 01483 521 615.

Relevant Images can be downloaded here.


Notes to Editors:

  1. Link to Michael Gove MP’s quote on US-style farming.
  2. The data:

The top ten regions with the highest number of livestock reared indoors are: Lincolnshire, Shropshire, Norfolk, Antrim, Herefordshire, North Yorkshire, Suffolk, Tyrone, Nottinghamshire and Powys.

The interactive map was created through a comprehensive data search of poultry, dairy and of farms in the UK using a combination of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, planning documents, industry publications, feed company literature, equipment suppliers, farm websites, on-location verification and other sources.

The definition of a ‘mega farm’ used in this research is based on the United States

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) definition for a Large Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation or CAFO with low animal welfare potential.

A small number of large free range poultry units are classified as ‘intensive’ under current Environmental Permitting Regulations owing to their size. Whilst every effort has been made to identify these units, it is not always possible, so some may be included in overall figures.

Some indoor only farms will keep animals in better conditions and the available data does not allow for these farms to be separately identified and excluded. Examples of higher welfare indoor systems include: well-designed barn systems for laying hens; RSPCA-Assured and Red Tractor Enhanced welfare meat chickens; group housing and free farrowing systems for pigs. For this reason, we have produced our map as an indicative heat-map. However, the majority of animals in indoor systems will suffer from cramped and barren conditions.

Due to the fact that not all data of the number of animals on farms has been obtainable from local authorities or publications, some counties have been left as 0. This does not mean that intensive farming does not take place in those counties, but simply that the information is not available.  We will continue to monitor the situation closely and will update the map if the relevant local authorities provide us with the relevant data.

For Scotland specifically, the data analysis is limited owing to the lack of permits and other records being made available by the regulator (SEPA) following a cyber-attack and on-going associated issues. Additionally, some geographical boundaries have changed since the original data gathering, along with permit titles/codes, so the CAFO figures quoted for Scotland overall are likely to be an underestimate.

This is part of Compassion in World Farming’s End.It campaign that aims to make world leaders agree a clear global ‘rescue plan’ for our food system, including a significant global reduction in meat consumption, to ensure a healthy future for people, animals and the planet. Read more about why we need an overarching UN Global Agreement on food systems transformation.


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