CUMBRIA is becoming home to rising numbers of intensive 'mega farms' that between them house more than 1.2 million chickens destined for the supermarket shelves.

The birds are reared indoors in giant buildings - with some of the UK's largest commercial meat producers operating sites within the county.

It means Cumbria is home to three times more chickens than residents.

New figures uncovered during a joint investigation by the Times & Star and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Bureau Local unit has revealed the number of 'intensive farm' permits issued in Cumbria has rocketed to 30.

The practice of intensively rearing animals and birds for meat is an emotive issue with campaign groups calling for the complete abolition of 'factory farms'.

However, others argue welfare standards and conditions in the UK are among the highest in Europe and exist because of consumer demand for cheap meat.

Emma Slawinski, Compassion in World Farming’s director of campaigns, said: "It is very worrying to see the number of applications for permits allowing the creation of more intensive farms rocketing within the region of Cumbria.

"Sadly this trend is also more widespread than within this county alone.

"“With around 70 per cent of farm animals in the UK kept in factory farms, this is a practice we should be moving away from, not towards.

"Intensive farming systems have a wealth of animal welfare implications associated with them and animals are treated as nothing more than commodities.

"They will spend their lifetimes in intense confinement without access to natural daylight or fresh air."

Large factory-style farming facilities are commonly found in the United States where they are officially known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.

Intensive farms in the UK are classified as those that have at least 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows though data uncovered using Freedom of Information laws show there are now 792 on UK shores hold the equivalent number of animals to an American CAFO.

By law each must hold an intensive farming permit from the Environment Agency to ensure levels of emissions, waste, dust and noise all fall within legal limits, even if they are free range.

The number of permits issued in Cumbria has doubled in the last three years.

Intensive farming nationwide has risen 25 per cent since 2011.

There are now 30 permits issued for farm sites in Cumbria, with 29 housing poultry and one housing pigs.

Carlisle has seven, Allerdale has 10, Copeland seven, Eden eight and South Lakeland one.

Conditions at the largest sites see birds kept in indoor units for their entire life. Those that meet Red Tractor assured status allow 20 chickens per square metre.

The Red Tractor stamp, which appears on final packaging when the product arrives in shops and supermarkets, also permits varieties of birds that grow too rapidly for their own legs, a factor that is known to leave some unable to walk.

The birds are then slaughtered at between 32 and 39 days old.

The profit margin for the operator on each can be as little as 20 pence - something that is said to fuel the need to manage stock in ever increasing densities.

Ms Slawinski added: "We encourage shoppers to reduce their meat consumption and purchase higher welfare meat, eggs and dairy - such as free-range and organic.

"We advise they look for higher welfare labels such as Soil Association and RSCPA Assured.

"By doing this, they will be playing their part in supporting the end to one of the biggest forms of animal cruelty on the planet; factory farming."

What does the Red Tractor symbol actually mean?

:: The Red Tractor scheme was set up in 2000 to provide an assurance that food had been produced in an safe environment that is above minimum UK welfare standards.

:: For poultry, the stamp allows 38kg of livestock per square metre - the equivalent to around 20 birds.

:: In contrast, the RSPCA Freedom Foods organic standards allow no more than 30kg per square metre and demands slower growing chickens.

:: Fast growing chicken varieties are allowed under the Red Tractor stamp, including those known to grow too rapidly for their own legs.

:: Organic standards require a density of between 21kg to 30kg per square metre as well as enrichment in the shed and access outdoors.

:: For pigs, the Red Tractor symbol allows the use of concrete floors.