Animal rights activists are stepping up their campaign against poultry farmers, with the NFU reporting a surge in break ins. How should the industry tackle this growing issue?
When Stuart Agnew got a phone call last year from Channel 4 News telling him it had footage from inside his chicken sheds and intended to broadcast it that night, it was the first he knew about an illegal break-in at his farm.
The television producers told Agnew, who is UKIP’s agriculture spokesman and an MEP for the east of England, that the footage showed hens with feather loss looking distressed and poorly cared for, and asked him to comment before the broadcast.
Agnew, who supplies eggs to Noble Foods, viewed the footage and was shocked. He asked the programme makers to hold off for 24 hours to give him a chance to formulate a proper response. “I knew we had had some problems with feather loss, but this looked terrible,” he says.
He was working with vets to clear up a mite problem in the flock, and the birds with feather loss were also being treated. In fact, the only health problem he was concerned about was a sudden rise in mortality he’d noticed a few weeks before. Vets had been called, who suggested there had been a ‘stress incident’.
In hindsight, it became apparent that the stress incident had been the break-in by animal rights activists from Norfolk’s Hillside Animal Sanctuary. It’s an occurrence that is becoming increasingly common. The NFU says there were six such farm break-ins in the first half of 2016 alone.
At February’s NFU conference in Birmingham, Duncan Priestner, NFU poultry board chairman said activists were upping the ante. “It used to be that protesters wanted more free-range animals and better conditions overall for farm animals,” he said. “Now, increasingly, they want an end to farmed animals altogether.”
Aside from the obvious problems of property damage and causing stress to animals, biosecurity is a major concern at the moment.
The footage is often used to lobby retailers (Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have been a particular focus) over their meat and egg sourcing policies.
Footage from break ins has been posted on animal rights groups websites. On the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA’s) website, there is footage from two break ins last December at two chicken farms that supply M&S – Wild Rose farm in Long Stratton, Norfolk, and Hook2Sisters farm at Fen Drayton in Cambridgeshire.
The videos are set to a sombre classical musical soundtrack and it urges viewers to ‘share this video with your meat-eating family and friends’ and ‘order a free vegan starter kit’.
Shortly after the Channel 4 phone call, RSPCA officers turned up at Agnew’s egg farm and asked to inspect the birds. Agnew was in Strasbourg on UKIP business and so his wife showed them around the hens’ sheds. Reassured, the inspectors wrote a report saying the birds were being treated for any health problems, and Channel 4 decided there was no longer a story.
“We checked to see that they had been seen by a vet and were satisfied they were,” said the RSPCA’s head of farm animals, Dr Marc Cooper.
“We deemed the birds looked bright. Yes, some had mites but it was being treated. We did feel the ammonia level was high in one area but that was addressed through ventilation.
“The filming was done at night when the ‘pop holes’ through which the birds gain access to the outside were closed. We investigated thoroughly and were satisfied that the producer had done everything he could and should. If he hadn’t, we would have taken it further.”
But that wasn’t an end to the nightmare. The footage was touted round numerous other media outlets. All declined to broadcast or publish, except the Mail on Sunday, which ran with the story despite the RSPCA’s assurances.
After the story came out, Agnew received ‘tirades of abuse’ via email and post, he says. As well as the toll of dealing with hate mail, he also had to invest in more security. He offered to resign as UKIP’s agriculture spokesman, but the party stood by him. During the whole experience, he was grateful for the support offered by his customer Noble Foods, he says.
Agnew is convinced the footage was staged to make the birds’ health look worse than it was. He claims the birds were ‘piled up’ in one corner of the shed and filmed at night when they were passive and docile. He also believes the intruders spent a significant amount of time in the sheds, causing significant stress.
It could have been worse however. In 2009, about 136,000 hens died after their air supply was cut off during break-in at a poultry farm near Edinburgh. Police said the ventilation to 12 poultry sheds was turned off, which led to the birds suffocating.
The incident happened at the Beechgrove Farm near Balerno. The birds were thought to be worth about £400,000. Scottish SPCA chief superintendent Mike Flynn said: “This was either an extremely callous or thoughtless act that has resulted in thousands of animals suffering what must have been a very uncomfortable and slow death filled with pain and fear.”
The irony of those claiming to care about animals doing such damage is not lost on Agnew. Aside from the verbal abuse and threats he received, the lost time and money, and the worry, the hens were also caused unnecessary suffering by the intruders. “Those people killed my birds,” he says.
Following an increase in poultry farm break-ins, the NFU chief poultry adviser Gary Ford has issued the following advice:
In response to the industry doing well and often prompted by an increase in planning applications, animal rights activists have increased their activity and are targeting our sector. The advice is largely common sense and is very much attention to detail. However, it is based on our experience of the areas activists focus on when they break into our sheds.
Avoid temporarily storing dead birds in the control room overnight – this is often a result of walking the birds last thing at night and picking up the handful of dead birds or leg culls that were missed the previous walk. From our experience activists are likely to use these birds and plant them in the shed to make mortality look high and also that the farmer is not picking up his dead.
As well as dead birds, lame birds are also a particular focus for activists. Please ensure birds with leg health issues are culled promptly.
Ensure any medicines or chemicals are stored away and disposed of properly. A cache of empty vaccine vials disposed of in a non-secured dustbin can be portrayed by activists as over-use of antibiotics.
All shed doors, including catching doors should be kept locked, even when a manager is on site.