That idyllic pastoral scene of cows grazing on lush grass against a backdrop of rolling hills and patchwork fields may have been an accurate representation of British dairy farming back in the 1800s, but the face of the UK dairy industry has changed dramatically since then. And it might not be for the good of its cows.
A new report from animal welfare charity, World Animal Protection (WAP) claims that there are 97 "confirmed intensive indoor dairy farms with a further 43 suspected farms that permanently house cows all year round" in the UK. According to the report, these intensive farms see cows kept indoors all year-round and "denied access to pasture."
Released last month, the report also explores the effect this type of farming has on the welfare of cattle. It notes: "Milk produced from intensive indoor dairy systems means cows are pushed to their physical limits because of the demands placed upon them to produce more milk. Research has shown that there is a higher risk of cows suffering from lameness and udder infections."
Although the UK Government does not currently publish statistics on the exact number of intensive indoor dairy farms in the UK, a spokesperson for World Animal Protection told MUNCHIES that the charity examined dairy farm planning documents to identify which sites were being used for intensive farming.
They said: "World Animal Protection commissioned extensive research using official, publicly available planning records to confirm the locations and sizes of intensive dairy farms across the UK."
WAP found that Dumfries and Galloway had the highest number of intensive indoor farms, with 13 confirmed and one suspected farm. Somerset and North Yorkshire were next on the list, with nine confirmed farms in both counties and four and one suspected in each respectively.
In "real cow terms," WAP claims that the largest units used by intensive dairy farms in the UK can hold over 2,000 cows, meaning "tens of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of cows could be facing a life that will mean they will never have the freedom to graze in fields."
While the exact number of cows affected is not outlined by the WAP report, the findings build on an investigation carried out by The Independent in November 2013, which identified at least 20 indoor dairy farms with herds of 700 cows or more, suggesting that the intensive farming practice is becoming more widespread.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) however, has hit back at the report's claims, saying in a statement to The Telegraph that "over 90 percent of the milk produced and consumed in the UK is inspected for environmental, animal health, and welfare, and food safety standards under the Red Tractor scheme, and consumers can be confident in dairy products displaying the Red Tractor logo."
The NFU went on to argue that the WAP report is "misleading" and that the welfare group has "no evidence to prove that the health and welfare of the dairy cow is compromised due to the scale or the system of the farm."
The NFU's comments refer specifically to studies cited in the WAP's report that point to a lesser quality of life for cows kept indoors all year-round. With the dairy industry in crisis and supermarket price wars meaning farmers are being paid less and less per pint, Britain's dairies are under pressure to improve efficiency.
WAP's ultimate aim, though, is to push for free-range milk—already produced on a small-scale in the UK—to become the standard. They said in their statement to us that that by highlighting the effects of intensive indoor dairy farming on cows and the increased use of the practice, clearer milk labelling will follow.
WAP said: "We hope our report will shine a light on the urgent need for farms to allow their cows to graze outdoors for the majority of the year and for milk to be clearly labelled as such, so that consumers have the choice to buy milk from cows that have not been confined indoors for the whole of their lives."