Sunset in UK countryside

How did farming become a threat to our wild isles?



Sir David Attenborough’s new documentary 'Wild Isles' showcases the wonders of the natural world in our United Kingdom and issues an urgent plea for us to protect and restore them to their former glory.

One of the greatest tasks we must accomplish to rise to this challenge is to change the way we farm our land and raise animals, whilst producing food to feed the nation. 

We may treasure the bucolic image of the British countryside with animals grazing contentedly outside, sadly, this is not reality. Modern intensive farming, with its vast indoor sheds, housing thousands of animals kept in appalling conditions, has stamped all over our countryside. In doing so, farming has become a looming threat to the health of our wildlife, rural environment and people.

A shift in farming practices

Farming in the UK looked very different a century ago. Animals were mainly reared outdoors on pasture, providing not only a rich natural environment for the animals but also for insects, wildlife, plant life and flowers. 

This started to change after the Second World War. The break down in trade due to the war led the government to prioritise food security, which meant producing as much food as cheaply and quickly as possible. Farms changed from outdoor mixed farming methods to specialising in just one crop or animal, using new technology and industrial methods like cages, crates and automatic feeders to increase production.  


Meat had previously been a luxury, but more intensive farming combined with the UK’s huge social and economic transformation led it to become far more available and affordable. It quickly became a daily feature on dinner plates and symbol of rising standards of living. This abundance of affordable food, that also included grains, vegetables and dairy, undoubtably had a positive effect for everyone in Britain in the decades after the second world war.  


Soon the profits available from ever more intensification overtook the initial benefits of a wider diet as animals were bred to grow larger, faster and produce bigger litters, all to create more milk and meat.


The intensification driven by ‘modern’ farming also led to fields being paved over ready for barns, access roads and loading bays. Trees, fields, and hedgerows that had supported birds, insects and mammals were ripped out and the wildlife they supported was devastated by its loss. Factory farms were built in their place, that continue to inflict harm on the local environment long after paving over the grassland that was once there.


The impact of factory farming


Chickens reared for meat are kept in barns often holding 40,000 or more animals at a time with just the space of an A4 piece of paper to live in. Pigs are bred to have larger and larger litters who are moved to barren indoor pens for rearing. Even dairy cows are increasingly moving indoors all year round.

The impact of so many animals in one space, living in filthy cramped conditions is devastating for our environment. The manure of over 1 billion animals reared each year in the UK must go somewhere. When its spread on fields or pumped directly into nearby waterways it causes catastrophic damage to local ecosystems. Recent reports of excessive phosphate and nitrate flowing into the soils and waterways around farms in the UK, mean we are now seeing the result, ecological dead zones, where plants and animals can’t survive.


The damage wrought to the countryside pales compared to the nightmare inflicted upon the animals raised within the factory farm system. Animals kept in stressful barren factory farm conditions, struggle to survive. Farms had to change how they looked after animals just to keep them alive and to stop them attacking each other. Out of stress and frustration pigs began biting each other's tails and chickens started plucking out their own feathers.


The solution unfortunately wasn’t improving conditions or moving back to traditional farming methods. Instead, routine mutilations like tail docking, teeth clipping, and break trimming became the norm on farms. On top of this to increase production even more litters were weaned earlier, and chickens were bred to grow faster: leading to painful health problems with weak ligaments, enlarged organs, malnutrition, and high rates of mortality.


Pigs in a UK factory farm
Pigs in a UK factory farm

The 'silent pandemic' of antimicrobial resistance


Antibiotics started to be used widely in the 1950s and 60s and were a game changer for human medicine in enabling us to treat disease. Now, these lifesaving antibiotics are at risk of becoming useless due to overuse and misuse. They have also enabled the most intensive farming practises, to prevent the inevitable illnesses caused by early weaning, fast growth, mutilations, cramped, barren environments and stress and are given routinely to whole herds of healthy animals.


These antibiotics don’t stay on farms, nor do the bacteria. Bacteria that have regular exposure to antibiotics become resistant over time. Excreted into animal manure the medications and resistant bacteria leach into the surrounding environment. Not just risking untreatable infections on farms, but in humans too. This 'silent pandemic’ is already responsible for over a million deaths worldwide each year and continues to grow.


It’s not only the biodiversity and ecosystems of these wild isles that British factory farming is destroying. Feeding over 1 billion animals every year requires importing vast quantities of grains and meal, including soy. Soy is one of the leading causes of deforestation in South America as rainforests and savannah are cleared to grow it. This destroys unique and biodiverse habitats on the planet, and is a major contributor to climate heating.

To protect the wildlife and ecosystems we have left, we need to eat less meat and dairy and move to humane and sustainable farming methods, like regenerative farming. This keeps fewer animals outdoors on pasture.


Pasture is allowed to grow naturally with plants and flowers that are left to flower and seed. Trees and hedges are appreciated in providing the farmed animals with shelter and wildlife a place to call home. These farms protect our soils, prevent flooding, and host the plant life and wildlife we love and, thanks to Wild Isles, will have a newfound appreciation of.


Be the generation to finally end factory farming

Our food system is broken. Sign our petition to tell the UK government there is No Future for Factory Farming.


Sign our petition now

Image credits: Hero image: Ben Hawes / Getty ImagesPigs on farm: World Animal Protection / Tracks Investigations

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To protect the wildlife and ecosystems we have left, we need to eat less meat and dairy and move to humane and sustainable farming methods, like regenerative farming.

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