On Saturday, I went to Potterhanworth in Lincolnshire, to the Chequers Inn, to meet a group of protesters against the proposed Nocton Mega-dairy (Potterhanworth is one of the villages close to the proposed site, along with Dunston, and Nocton itself).
Following the receipt of some strident, not to say hysterical e-mails from Nocton protesters after some earlier blog comments on the project, I approached the meeting with some trepidation, metaphorically reaching for my flak jacket and tin hat. I also took with me my friend and neighbour Peter Ward, himself a dairy farmer and from a farming family (he tells me that he first went into a milking parlour at the age of two, in a push-chair).
I need not have worried: Ian Glaister (who seems to be Chairman of the group) and his colleagues were extremely courteous and professional. Ian, with Peter Lundgren, another diary farmer, and Ian Cawsey of WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) had put together a very professional presentation dealing with their concerns regarding the project.
I had thought that the event had been arranged primarily as a response to my earlier comments, so I was surprised to see Bill Turncoat Dunn MEP at the event. However he had to leave early for an East Midlands Lib-Dem Conference (I wanted to ask if it was going to take place in a telephone box) so he caught most of the presentations, but missed the debate.
I have an instinctive sympathy with local protest groups, as a result of all the work I have done across the region in supporting wind farm protests, and I was interested to hear the pitch from the Nocton group. I had previously said that while I recognised their concerns, I thought they were over-stated, and that on balance the benefits to the county and the region (and to British agriculture, food security and balance-of-payments) outweighed the local impacts.
I still think that some of the concerns are over-stated.
Animal Welfare: I have taken advice from the NFU, from the RSPCA and from half a dozen dairy farmers. The consensus seems to be that the welfare of dairy cows depends critically on the quality of stockmanship and animal husbandry, as well as nutrition, and that there is no prima-facie reason to suppose that welfare standards are better in small farms than in large. The idea that extensive farming with grazing is better for cows than keeping them in seems to have more to do with human perceptions and emotions than with animal welfare. Indeed there is a case that large units should be better, with twenty-four hour vet coverage and very professional nutritional standards.
The last word on welfare surely comes with the realisation that in the dairy business, yield is critical, and cows that are distressed or sick will simply not produce good yields. In this case the welfare interests and the commercial imperatives are perfectly aligned.
Odour: This seems to be a key issue for protesters, but again I think it’s overstated. A Nocton resident went to a very large dairy unit in the North West, and reported her surprise that smells were limited in the sheds, and imperceptible a couple of hundred yards away. The Nocton project will have an anaerobic digester from Day One, which greatly reduces odour. Ian Glaister pointed to the recent BBC Countryfile programme, where a helicopter-borne reporter commented on the dreadful smell over a large dairy unit in the US. What the BBC did not report was that there were no fewer that thirteen farms in the immediate vicinity, two of which were pig farms, and five of which had no digester system, so this was of marginal relevance to Nocton.
Visual impact: But the sheds are fairly low (compared to the 125 metre/400 foot height of wind turbines) and can be surrounded by trees. Visual impact is likely to be minimal.
Flies and rats: The protesters are making a big issue of flies and rats which they say will proliferate around a large dairy unit. I asked Peter Ward about flies and rats as we drove home. His view: provided proper extermination measures are in place, neither is a major problem.
House prices: Here is a real concern. The protesters report great difficulty selling houses in the villages, and reduced prices. But it is perhaps not entirely mischievous to point out that the protest campaign has had great success in highlighting and dramatising (some might say exaggerating) the negative local impacts, which have enjoyed huge play in local media, so it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s an effect on house prices. I suspect that if the project goes ahead, these concerns will soon be assuaged, and prices should recover.
However the meeting did draw my attention two potentially serious concerns:
Water pollution: I was told that there is an aquifer immediately beneath the site. There seems to be a potential hazard with (A) possible leakage from the slurry lagoon, either as a result of accident or even of sabotage by animal rights lunatics; (B) the spreading of the digestate from the anaerobic digester as fertiliser on surrounding fields (though the project would of course have to comply with EU regulations on Nitrogen Vulnerable Zones). There is also a small brook that runs through the villages, and rises close to site. Protesters fear that this too could be contaminated.
Health/Asthma: It is claimed that airborne particulate matter, either from the unit itself or from the spread digestate, could lead to problems for asthma sufferers, or cause or exacerbate congestive lung conditions among local residents.
I had to admit that I simply don’t know enough about these issues to comment, except to say that if the protesters can provide solid evidence on these points, then in my view the Planning Committee would want to look at them very seriously. The villages are waiting for a new planning application to be made – it is expected shortly – and no doubt the fight will go on. But I must express my gratitude to Ian Glaister and his colleagues for their briefing and for their cordial welcome.
PS: I’ve been worrying about Bill’s regional meeting. Bill is a complete sell-out on Europe (and on climate) but he used to be reasonably sound on free market issues. I dare say he will have taken some flak from the Lib Dem sandals-and-muesli brigade, on several points – welfare, housing benefit, student fees. I fear he may get back to Brussels with the scars still on his back.