Michael McCarthy: How long before we see indoor units of up to 40,000 cows?

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The British view of the countryside, which stubbornly clings on in our national psyche, is clearly an idealised one: the green utopia of quiet harmony, of timeless rhythms and unchanging traditions, to which people dream of retiring, is more and more a construct of the imagination. But it's not all imaginary: we still possess, especially in England, a small-scale, mixed landscape of woods and hedges and fields and farms which is not only charming but somehow feels humane in its intimacy.

Not everywhere, though, nowadays: go to parts of East Anglia and you will find vast hedgeless cereal prairies on the American scale where the "barley barons" grow their thousands of tonnes of grain and where the skylarks and the turtle doves and the poppies have disappeared. This is intensive farming pushed to its limit, where the land is given over to food production and nothing else, and although some may contend that it is necessary, there can be very few people who feel that it lifts the spirit.

And now this sort of industrial intensity is set to move on from the arable sector to the raising of livestock. It can be argued, and it will be argued, that the case of a single dairy farm consisting of 8,000 cows – four times the size of the biggest dairy farm currently operating in Britain, with the cows indoors for most of the time – is not necessarily a bad thing; but most people who are not farmer-businessmen will find it hard to suppress an instinctive shudder at the idea.

Livestock farming still retains much of that small-scale character which gives our landscape its peculiar character – the average dairy farmer in England currently has a herd of 113 cows. In fact, of our 13,500 dairy farms, fewer than 100 produce more than 4 million litres of milk annually, meaning they are likely to have more than 500 animals. We should not forget that the dairy industry has been through very tough times recently, and 400 farmers a year are leaving it, so rationalisation into larger units may become an increasing necessity. But the advent of 8,000-cow indoor units – and it may not stop there, as there are 40,000-cow units in the US – is something about which most people who love our countryside will have serious misgivings.

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