World Society for the Protection of Animals

Dairy farming in the UK

large dairy farm image 468

Herds of grazing cattle have shaped the British countryside for centuries. Unlike many other countries, cows in fields are still a regular sight in the UK. 

But in recent years, dairy cows’ access to pasture has started to decrease as an under resourced dairy industry looks to fix its problems by switching to industrial-scale farming.

As the future of conventional UK dairy farming hangs in the balance, WSPA is calling for cow welfare to stay top of the agenda by saying no to factory farmed milk.

The changing shape of dairy farms

There are currently over 10,681 farms in England and Wales. Most have an average herd size of about 120 animals, and farms with more than 200 cows are rare.

The animals are usually able to graze and move around in small, regular groups which suit their sociable nature and help to manage livestock stress levels.

Compare this against industrial-scale indoor dairy factories in the United States that can house up to 32,000 cows. Milked around the clock with little or no access to pasture and plagued by illness, the welfare of battery cows is a far cry from our impression of dairy farming in the UK.

But factory dairies like these may be closer than we think.

Since 2010, WSPA has fought off two applications in Lincolnshire, and is currently fighting a third industrial-scale dairy operation in Wales that could see the tiny village of Leighton dominated by a 1000-cow dairy farm.

What is intensive dairy farming?

Over the past forty years, cows have been selectively bred to provide as much milk as possible. Although their natural lifespan is as much as 15 – 20 years, most dairy cows are culled at around six.

For the vast numbers of exhausted cows crammed inside US-style factory dairies, health problems like mastitis, lameness and infertility are common. Unable to move around freely, their natural behaviour is restricted making them stressed and aggressive.

Read our report Not on my Cornflakes which shows how factory dairy farming can affect cow welfare, as well as human health, the environment and rural communities

A poor deal for farmers and the environment

Competitive supermarket pricing and the centralised way we buy our food is pushing dairy farmers out of business every week.

In an industry that values volume of milk output above anything else, many farmers are unwilling to put sentient animals at the heart of such an intensive system. Industrial dairy farming also carries a huge environmental cost, putting a huge strain on the climate, water supply and public health.

Find out more in our joint report with the Soil Association, which examines the impact of factory dairy farms on other farmers who allow their cows a more natural life on pasture.

Read our report Weighing up the Economics of Dairy Farms, fronted by leading UK businesswoman and entrepreneur Deborah Meaden, which shows WSPA’s vision of cows in fields can be a successful business plan that is better for people, cows and the environment.

Where does your milk come from?

There are already some intensive dairy farms in the UK – currently just a tiny percentage of our dairy farms. But it is still enough that it makes it hard for caring consumers to know how best to support British dairy farmers when buying a pint of milk, without sacrificing their animal welfare ideals.

Find out more about the problem and how you can help us here >>


© World Society for the Protection of Animals
Tel: +44 (0)20 7239 0500. Email:
UK Registered Charity Number 1081849.