Herefordshire's idyllic Golden Valley threatened by plans to build huge broiler-chicken sheds

Local residents say units would create noise, smell and pollution

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The Independent Online

Set among the rolling hills of west Herefordshire, the Golden Valley is one of the most arresting landscapes in Britain.

But proposals to build two giant broiler-chicken sheds on a farm in the rural parish of Dorstone have raised fears that the valley could soon become dotted with industrial-sized bird factories.

These would ruin the idyllic scenery that draws tourists in droves and provides the county’s biggest source of income, opponents of the project contend.

Furthermore, locals say the proposal is dividing a community which has traditionally been friendly and unified.

The proposed chicken sheds at Bage Court Farm would each be 90 metres long – almost the length of a football pitch. If granted planning permission, they would be the latest in a new generation of US-style mega chicken farms sweeping across the west of England, Powys and the north of Herefordshire – but not, yet, the Golden Valley in the west of the county. These chicken giants dwarf traditional bird-producing facilities.

Each of the proposed sheds would produce about 40,000 birds every six weeks. It is an intensive industrial cycle in which the chickens are reared, dispatched and cleaned up after, before the next intake arrives and the process begins again.

“I was just stunned when I found out about the proposal. I didn’t say anything to anyone for 24 hours as I digested the information – I was so shocked,” said Marion Wilding-Jones, a horticulturist who lives in the hills overlooking the site. “This is a unique place. It is a privilege to live here and this would upset the apple cart. The sheer scale of it – it would feel like we’re being invaded,” she said.

Marian Wilding Jones

More than 200 people have voiced their objections to the proposals, with about 50 people in support – the vast majority of them being other farmers or farm contractors.

The opponents say the new chicken sheds – known as “broiler units” – will be noisy, smelly and polluting as well as ruining the view.

They are particularly concerned about the huge volumes of faeces that would be produced by so many chickens. If it is not properly managed, they fear it could get washed on to the surrounding land, where it could harm crops, and into the rivers, where it can acidify the water and feed algal blooms, which suck the oxygen out of the water and kill fish and insects when they rot.

Charlie Westhead is one half of the husband-and-wife team behind Neal’s Yard Creamery which supplies Harrods, Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and the Neal’s Yard outlets from its sole premises a mile upwind from the proposed site. Standing outside the dairy looking over the hills on a gloriously clear, sunny day, he says: “People here are very, very disappointed that their area is going to be defaced – which will also hit tourists and tourist businesses.

“For me, a major concern is all the crap that gets thrown up from the roof-mounted fans of these sheds which we are vulnerable to. This will contain fungal spores that could blow over here and cause problems for our cheeses.”

The two sheds would have 28 chimneys between them, pumping out dust from inside the units at such a rate that the entire atmosphere inside would change every five minutes, experts say.

But while the locals are concerned about the impact of the two proposed units they believe they are fighting a much bigger battle to protect the wider area.

They are convinced that if this project proposal – the first in the valley – is approved, it will open the floodgates to the industrialisation of the local landscape. “There is no question that if this gets through, it will be the first of many in the valley. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a cluster of 30, 40 even 50 crop up in the area in the coming years,” he said.

The Golden Valley is best known as home to the English Heritage Arthur’s Stone Neolithic burial chamber site, 300yd down the road from the Neal’s Yard Creamery. Merbach Hill, from where you would be able to see the proposed broiler units, is another landmark.

“Broiler units would completely traduce this area of country as they spread through the valley. Who would want to stay among industrial sheds?” asked Tim Rogers, a retired resident who worked for 30 years in the Church of England’s legal department. He also lives in the hills overlooking the proposed site.

Golden Valley resident Tim Rogers

“It is literally at the source of the river Dore, which feeds into the Wye. So if it gets polluted here, it will pollute all the way down,” he said.

Mr Rogers said the proposal has caused divisions within the community between the “hard core” of farmers and their contractors, who are in the minority – and the residents.

“A good number of farmers are privately against it and concerned that it is giving farming a bad name,” he said, adding that they choose to keep quiet about their concerns to minimise tensions in the agricultural community.

Mr Rogers is particularly concerned about the threat of avian flu posed by massive chicken farms because of their sheer size and concentration of birds.

Dr Michael Hession has lived in Dorstone for the last 37 years. “The upper Golden Valley is an area of outstanding landscape significance which is recognised as such both nationally and internationally,” he said in his objection to the planning application.

“It cannot be emphasised too strongly how commercial and industrial development in the form of chicken-rearing sheds would spoil, more likely sabotage, this wonderful landscape for our own and future generations, who would never forgive us.”

He is concerned about the potential noise from additional HGV traffic as well as from the site itself. He also worries about large quantities of toxic dust blowing onto the surrounding land, into the village and into the waterways, especially the nearby river Dore which runs along the Golden Valley, and which is already polluted, according to some locals. Others disagree and say a recent environment agency inspection showed that the river is in good shape.

The dust could include particles of avian flu virus, mites, bacteria, moulds and faeces – such as ammonia-rich chicken waste which pollutes rivers, Dr Hession says.

A date has not been set for the planning committee of Herefordshire Council to meet and decide whether  to approve or oppose the application – although it is expected to be around the middle of June.

John Morgan, the farmer behind the proposal, referred The Independent to the National Farmers Union (NFU) for comment on his plans. NFU poultry board chairman Duncan Priestner said: “Planning issues can sometimes stir up passionate arguments from both sides but it is important that this issue is dealt with by looking at the facts. Applications for chicken units of any size are subject to strict planning procedures which include tests on the environment, including any issues with sound and odours.”