After my wife and I acquired our first six laying hens a few weeks ago, it is a good time to reflect on the role of chickens in my fieldwork – or more precisely about the proliferation of intensive poultry farming in the Welsh-English border region and the civil society response this provokes.
On 29th October 2016, I attended a public meeting on “Ponds, Rivers and Poultry”, which was organized by the Brecon and Radnor branch of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW). As a national charity organisation CPRW is advocating for the preservation of the Welsh countryside and for its careful development. Ever since 1928 it has dealt with a wide range of controversial developments related to agricultural practices, infrastructures and energy.
The public seminar was held on a bright Saturday in Llanigon – a small Welsh hamlet close to the English border – and was scheduled to last for five and a half hours. It attracted around 100 people and went on for even longer than planned; an impressive turnout, that pushed the capacity of the village hall to its limit.
Despite my initial surprise, it soon became obvious why the local community showed so much interest: several new poultry sheds have been given planning permission within an area where already more than 2 million chickens are produced every week. That such intensification does not remain without opposition goes without saying and is well illustrated by the display of protest flyers like the ones below from the village of Hay-on-Wye or newspaper reports covering similar stories of opposition from other communities within the region (see for example these two articles published in the Guardian and Independent on the developments in the Golden Valley).
The main purpose of the meeting in Llanigon was to launch a public debate about the proliferation of poultry sheds and their adverse effects on water resources and aquatic ecosystems. Alongside other objections concerning animal welfare, odour, noise and visual impacts, nutrient pollution caused by the mismanagement and overuse of chicken muck on agricultural lands represents the key environmental concern.
While this day offered a number of noteworthy insights – including the clear work overload faced by the planning authorities to adequately deal with this development – my attention was drawn to the collection and visualisation of data on poultry developments. As it turned out, no data on the exact number and size of chicken sheds was readily available. Thus, CPRW had to go the extra mile in compiling a cumulative map for the Welsh county of Powys, based on where planning consent has been sought or given since 2011. A screenshot of this map is presented below, illustrating the extent of this trend in farm diversification. The full version can be found here: it allows the user to take a closer look, for instance at the geographic relation between poultry sheds and areas of conservation.
Apart from reminding us how contemporary consumption patterns radically shape rural areas, this example also highlights how citizen science can fill existing knowledge gaps and visualize agri-environmental problems in engaging ways. This obviously bears potential for conflicts of interests, but also illustrates the possibilities of including civil society organisations pro-actively in governance processes to make them more democratic. This seems to be particularly important in times when public budgets and personnel resources become ever-increasingly constrained and thus no longer guarantee adequate control through state scrutiny.