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Pig farmer hires PR firm in battle over factory proposal outside Newtownabbey

Swine plant plan that has caused a huge stink with farmer's neighbours

By Ivan Little

Published 18/06/2015

Hall’s Pig Farm, Old Carrick Road in Newtownabbey
Hall’s Pig Farm, Old Carrick Road in Newtownabbey
Hall’s Pig Farm, Old Carrick Road in Newtownabbey
The family house on the farm
Halls Pig Farm, Old Carrick Road in Newtownabbey
Norman Kerr, resident of the Reahill Road, is objecting to the proposed pig farm close to his house

Even the hint of a haze can't spoil the breathtaking view from the top of the Reahill Road high above Newtownabbey.

No matter which way you look, you can literally see for miles and miles across to the towering Belfast hills and over the expanse of the busy Belfast Lough.

Nearer at hand, in a massive field, horses and lambs graze not far from each other, completing the picture of a pastoral idyll

Just a few hundred yards down below there are signs that everything in the Newtownabbey garden is not rosy.

On the Doagh Road close to Ashers' bake-house, which has had its own fair share of dramas in recent months, posters have been erected on lampposts with the simple message: 'Stop the Newtownabbey pig factory'.

The placards have been strategically positioned to make it impossible for planners from the local Antrim and Newtownabbey council offices at Mossley Mill to miss them.

They are the people who will decide on Derek Hall's application to build what will be the biggest pig farm in the UK.

Opponents claim the huge farm that they call a factory will be a blot on the landscape and an environmental disaster.

A care2.com petition linked to Facebook pages has attracted nearly 175,000 signatures and more than 2,000 people have written to the planners to object to the new pig farm.

But Mr Hall has hit back, hiring a top Belfast PR firm to represent him - and help present his case on an official website called nipigfarm.com which details what he is planning to do - and not to do. The identity of the PR firm is known but it has asked not to be named.

He's also distributing 10,000 leaflets to nearby housing estates like New Mossley and Monkstown, aimed at shattering what he calls the myths and misconceptions over his plans.

Over tea and scones at his existing farm on the Old Carrick Road, 35-year-old Mr Hall, who became a father for the first time just two weeks ago, told me that he believes his £6m development can only do good.

His family have been farming at Monkstown for three generations, but he claimed the present farm has become too outdated to cope with the advances in technology which he said he wants to introduce to improve the welfare of the pigs as well as to help the environmental impact of his operation.

He added: "There's vast domestic housing that has built up around me here on the Old Carrick Road, so I want to head further into the country to the new site on the Reahill Road to move away from those developments.

"The new farm would enable us to give growing pigs over 28.5% more space than the official guidelines demand.

"That's an illustration of my determination to improve welfare with a sustainable business. I designed the new facilities after speaking to organisations which have worries about how animals are treated."

People living near the proposed new farm are furious at the plans, which could see 30,000 pigs housed in a series of buildings on a 24-acre site in a year's time if planners say yes after consultations with the relevant agencies.

Campaign spokesman Norman Kerr said "We are unhappy about a whole range of problems - from increased traffic on tiny country roads, to the smell, to the noise, to the effluent and the environmental impact. And we don't know about the potential health hazards. No one can tell us."

He added: "The new farm is also planned for a hill and the bottom of it floods every time there's heavy rain. So obviously there are likely to be more issues there. And what happens if there is a fire?

"We have talked to the planners but we now want to meet the agencies who will be consulted before any decision is finalised."

Another resident, who didn't want to be named, said: "We don't object to the principle of the pig farm - it's the siting of it. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty in the countryside and we feel it is the wrong place for such an enormous development."

Green Party leader Steven Agnew has met residents and said: "We have major concerns about the environmental and welfare issues and we are going to talk with the people behind the proposers of the pig farm to find out their side of the story."

Animal Aid, a British-based group, has backed the campaigners. Spokesman Ben Martin said: "Our main objection is the suffering a pig factory on this industrial-scale would cause to the animals. When you have 30,000 pigs in one place it is impossible to monitor the wellbeing of every animal individually each day. And that's before you consider what would happen in the event of an emergency like a fire or a flood."

However, Max Abbi, who lives near the Halls' farm on the Old Carrick Road, said he'd never had any problems with it. He added: "I couldn't ask for better neighbours. They have always gone above and beyond in all the years I have lived there.

"If they're doing slurry they always give us a warning that there might be a bit of a smell. But slurry is slurry.

"I feel sorry for the Halls with all this negative stuff on the internet. I worked on the farm as a youngster during my summer holidays and I know from experience that their animals are well-treated."

Mr Hall, whose main customer is Sainsbury's supermarket, insisted the first phase of the new farm would involve only 15,000 pigs but admitted that the long-term aim was to double the number of animals there while at the same time keeping hundreds of sows at the current location, where there are currently 10,000 pigs

He denied that noise and waste would be major difficulties and said that smell would be tackled by the installation of two anaerobic digester tanks and two lagoons, one for pig waste, the other for water.

He also rejected residents' concerns about flooding because of measures he was taking to reduce the risk.

Mr Hall, who was convicted of two separate pollution offences three years ago, said he wanted to be as honest and upfront with opponents of his plans as possible.

"I am not trying to hide anything. I called with the neighbours on Reahill Road and Carntall Road to show them the plans and in April I had a public meeting in the Ballyearl Theatre, where I brought along consultants to answer any questions. I have already said I will sit down with the committee who are objecting to the new farm."

A friend of Mr Hall said: "Many of the people who have signed the online petition seem to be from America and even further afield.

"There are plants in the States which kill 35,000 pigs a day but here in Northern Ireland producers couldn't supply that many in a week."

It's thought it could be a number of months before the planners rule on Mr Hall's application in a process which has just undergone dramatic changes, with local councils taking over the decision-making.

Mr Hall said there would be a question mark over his existing farm if his application was rejected, adding: "It's getting old and some of the houses here have reached the end of their life."

He said that demand for pork and for food generally was expected to soar in the next few years across the world.

Mr Hall, who has been working on the new farm project for four years, said official studies had shown that by 2050 even the UK would have to produce 70% more food for a growing - and an ageing - population.

"We need to look at how we can produce food as economically and ethically as possible." he added.

Mr Hall's opponents won't say what they will do if they lose their battle to stop the farm going ahead or if they will take to the streets in a bid to reverse the decision.

"We will cross that bridge if we come to it," said one objector.

Belfast Telegraph

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