The media often focuses on the environmental impact of 'mega-farms', but what about the animals?
Blog written by Julie Hurst, volunteer blog writer

What do the shrill carder, one of our smallest bumblebees, and the River Wye, one of the UK’s longest rivers, have in common? The answer is that they are both under threat from large-scale intensive farming. Eight years after the then environmental secretary, Michael Gove, gave assurances to the contrary, there has been a huge rise in the number of so-called ‘mega-farms’ in this country, and with it a catalogue of collateral damage, of which the shrill carder and River Wye are just two of the many casualties.

Concern over the proliferation of mega-farms and the devastating damage they cause is increasingly and intensely being voiced. However, this concern does not appear to extend to the millions of animals confined on such farms. Despite being the direct victims of this escalating trend, why are farmed animals simply being forgotten?


It is estimated that 85% of farmed animals in the UK – over one billion – are kept inside intensive farming systems. Livestock farms are classified as ‘intensive’ in this country if they have the capacity to house at least 40,000 chickens, 2,000 pigs and/or 750 sows. (There is no formal definition of what constitutes an intensive cow farm). But the fact that these numbers are now dwarfed by the actual numbers kept in today’s vast warehouse-style units has led to the US term mega-farm being adopted.

The US definition of a mega-farm is one that contains either 125,000 or more chickens, 82,000-plus egg-laying hens or 2,500 or more pigs, and recent analysis revealed that there were 202 more mega-farms in the UK in 2023 than in 2016, or a total of 1,176.

The same study found that almost 36 million chickens were being kept in mega-farms in Lincolnshire alone, and that North Yorkshire topped the list of counties for the confinement of pigs at more than 190,000. Cumulatively, the figure for the top three counties showed they had capacity to confine over 86 million animals, and across the rest of the UK, excluding Scotland, it was estimated that total capacity amounted to an estimated 148 million chickens and almost 900,000 pigs.

This is the reality of farming in the UK today, especially for chickens, the most farmed land animal in the world. As Richard Griffiths, chief executive of the British Poultry Council, has said, “I think people think of hens roaming around a farm, but that image is no longer the case. That’s not how chicken is farmed anymore”.


The sheer size and scale of these mega-farms is transforming the British countryside – over 70% of the UK’s land is now dedicated to farming – and with dire consequences. The equivalent of 35% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions comes from producing and eating our food and drink; food production in the UK is threatening 40% of UK species already at risk of extinction – such as the shrill carder bee – and agriculture is the number one source of river pollution in the UK – the status of the River Wye was downgraded to ’unfavourable - declining’ by Natural England last year as a result of contamination by chicken manure from mega-farms. Intensive industrial livestock production also presents a direct threat to human health, as it provides the perfect breeding ground for the spread of diseases such as avian and swine flu. 

These concerns are very real and quite rightly garner significant amounts of press and airtime, as do the local concerns of residents protesting plans for mega-farm developments on their doorsteps. Their complaints regularly centre around the inevitable stench, noise pollution, congestion from farm traffic, and the prospect of ugly buildings blighting the landscape. In comparison, the silence regarding the welfare of the animals confined on such farms is resounding.


Intensive farming is the single biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet. In today’s mega-farms living beings are treated as agricultural machines, and every aspect of their lives is controlled. They are born, fed, watered and inseminated en masse for the sole purpose of ‘protein production’. Billions of animals are kept in barren, caged or overcrowded conditions, without access to pasture, and often lacking access to fresh air and natural light in order to satisfy the demand for food. The appalling conditions cause the animals untold stress, and coupled with the fact that they are genetically bred for ‘performance’ (to grow inordinately quickly for example), they suffer from a plethora of health conditions. Unsurprisingly, their emotional and social needs are also completely ignored, by a cruel system which prioritises profit over the rights of the animals.

Given that harming animals is viewed as morally wrong, there appears to be a huge disconnect among the meat-eating public between today’s farming methods, the food they consume and the animals that suffer as a direct consequence. As Jared Piazza, Lecturer of Psychology at Lancaster University, writes in Why We Love and Exploit Animals, “Something appears to happen to our moral concern for animals when we stop thinking about them as living beings and start thinking of them as food”. And there are various issues that contribute to what he refers to as this ‘ethical blind spot’.


Firstly, people are isolated from the animals they eat. Echoing Richard Griffith’s comments above, Dr Zoë Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association (NPA), has said, “People like the idea of a family farm. They don’t know what an actual farm looks like". And indeed, mega-farms go unnoticed by many. This is despite their size and the controversy surrounding them, and due in part to the expansion of existing sites rather than construction of new ones. But this ‘invisibility’ serves the industry very well given the torturous treatment of the animals kept inside, and is something it is very keen to maintain. Following one of our recent exposés for example, which involved premises owned by three directors of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), Farmers Weekly published an article on its website warning producers of ‘targeted incursions by animal rights activists’ and calling for extra vigilance.

Secondly, eating meat is seen as normal and routine by many people, and as Jared Piazza writes, “the mindlessness of this behaviour manifests in the dissociation of meat from its animal source”. This mindless behaviour is reinforced by the fact that eating meat is so pervasive, and for many, if everybody around them is behaving and believing similarly, it is hard for them to act differently.

Thirdly, there is a perception that animals bred for food are not really harmed or mistreated in any way. This is a view that is reinforced not only by the ‘world-class welfare’ narrative we are constantly sold about the UK’s farming system, but also, and unfortunately, by the work of welfare organisations which seeks to effect incremental improvements to intensive farming practices rather than end them altogether.

And finally, there is the simple matter of ignorance, either intentional – adopting a ‘don’t tell me, I don’t want to know’ approach – or unintentional – which is easily overcome by just a few minutes of research. 


While consumers are a huge driving force behind the continued suffering of farmed animals, there are other factors at play which help to maintain the status quo. For example, animal welfare is not identified as a legitimate planning consideration, so authorities struggle to reject proposals for mega-farms on this basis (which could explain why objections to mega-farm development rarely focus on animal suffering). Also, campaigners fighting to preserve the River Wye – while successful in securing a government pledge of £35m to help with clean-up costs – noted that protection plans did not address the issue of intensive farming, and that there was ‘thundering silence’ on action such as banning new production units.

This speaks to the power and influence of the animal agriculture lobby, as does the fact that government agricultural subsidies considerably favour animal products over plant-based foods. And in fact, while several countries, including Switzerland, Denmark and most recently Germany, have published nutrition guidelines that place an increased focus on plant-based diets, the UK government has declared it has ‘no intention’ of encouraging the public here to eat less meat.


The plight of farmed animals is at the mercy of many players, and achieving change would seem an almost impossible task. Large-scale methods are the only way to satisfy the UK’s demand for cheap meat, and the farming industry will continue to employ such methods if they can sell what is produced. Methods which, by their very nature, inflict considerable suffering on millions of animals. However, there is cause for cautious optimism. 

Not only are individual governments now publicly acknowledging the benefits of plant-based foods, but the World Health Organization (WHO) is actively looking to enlist experts to help develop new dietary guidelines following the Director-General’s call for a shift towards more plant-based diets. A move away from animal agriculture is also being increasingly championed by climate scientists, and the call for subsidy reform is gaining traction.

Increasing public awareness through activism and education is also helping to change perceptions, as evidenced by the growth in veganism in the UK and increasing sales of plant-based foods. This trend should continue as veganism is increasingly normalised, aided by the availability, accessibility and variety of foods free from animal cruelty. To quote Jared Piazza once again, “As people come to see that they do not need to eat animals to be contented consumers, they will find the moral arguments against eating meat more palatable, and their motivations will cease to get in the way of extending moral courtesies to animals that we eat”.

As always,

For the animals.

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