10 rivers in seven counties across Britain are at risk of becoming “dead zones” – depleted of wildlife – if the UK government does not ban new factory chicken farms.

This is according to a new Soil Association report, which revealed that the chicken meat sector has been expanding at a rate of one million birds/year since 2014.

Currently, it has reached more than a billion birds/year, the Soil Association said.

It said the poultry industry is a leading cause of dead zones in the River Wye, where the muck from 20 million chickens has contributed to “phosphate pollution that causes algal blooms, suffocating plants and starving wildlife that depend on it”.  

The association’s ‘Stop Killing Our Rives’ report looked at the escalating number of permits for factory chicken farms in England and Wales.  

It found units are concentrated in 10 other river catchments in Norfolk, Shropshire, Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Herefordshire and Powys.

According to the Soil Association, the other rivers at risk from intensive chicken units are:

  • River Thet, Norfolk;
  • River Wissey, Norfolk;
  • River Severn, Shropshire and Gloucestershire;
  • River Tern, Shropshire;
  • River Roden, Shropshire;
  • River Swale, Yorkshire;
  • River Witham, Lincolnshire;
  • River Frome, Herefordshire;
  • River Arrow, Herefordshire;
  • River Vrnwy, Powys and Shropshire.

The association has launched a petition calling for a UK-wide ban on new intensive poultry units.

UK chicken farming

The association surveyed 2,000 people and concluded that 80% underestimate the scale of industrial chicken farming.

Soil Association head of food policy, Rob Percival, said: “Few people realise that industrial chicken production might be the most ethically bankrupt and environmentally destructive business in the UK.

“It’s the scale and intensity of production that’s the issue – most people would be shocked to learn that poultry populations have been growing at a rate of one million birds every month for the past ten years. It’s gobsmacking, a horror story that is impossible to sustain. 

“The system needs to be completely reformed. Farmers operating these units are often doing so out of financial necessity and need a viable alternative. Urgent government action is needed. 

“The poultry industry is like a runaway train – if we don’t act now to put the brakes on industrial production, we’ll see more of our rivers becoming dead zones and facing the same desperate fate as the River Wye.”

Percival said the pollution can “happen anywhere” if it can happen in a protected area like the River Wye.

“Enough is enough – we need to stop building intensive poultry units, and help farmers to exit this damaging industry.” 

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said:

“We have set highly ambitious legally binding targets to reduce water pollution from agriculture and, through our farming schemes, are providing significant funding to farmers to help reduce pollution and agricultural run-off.

“More than 4,400 government-funded farm inspections this financial year have resulted in 6,000 actions being taken by farmers to improve farm practices and reduce environmental impacts, especially on our waterways.”