The Lescout Mystery: How a Giant Chicken Coop Created Psychosis in a Village in the Tarn

Our series “The Lescout Mystery” in three episodes:

  1. How a giant chicken coop created psychosis
  2. The village discovers “the diagonal of cancers”
  3. The administration drags on, the slingshot reappears

This is the story of a mystery. From a psychosis. With a smell that irritates the throat, goes up to the eyes and gives a headache. It comes and goes, leaving in each appearance its share of enigmas and uncertainties. It is in Lescout, a city of 700 souls in the south of the Tarn, that you have to go to feel it. Preferably at night, say connoisseurs, after a hot summer day.

Lescout is home to one of the largest laying hen farms in France. There, above the tin-roofed buildings where some 200,000 birds are raised, the smell sometimes materializes in a cloud of white dust. Neighbors’ photos and videos testify to this. For seven years, this factory farm became the bane of the inhabitants of Lescout, in a national context that is already critical of industrial livestock. It is the target of appeals, demonstrations and public meetings. With an uncomfortable question: are aromas, whose composition the inhabitants are unaware of, dangerous to health?

Above the secondary road that connects Castres to Revel, the dovecote and its half-timbered period indicate the arrival in Lescout better than the signal circled in red. “It’s our own Eiffel Tower! » has a resident. You have to drive again, go through two villages and some fields of sunflowers to come across the controversial farm. Like a fortress, white iron gates surround the buildings spread over several hectares. It is difficult to distinguish its length from the road. Apart from a panel, nothing suggests, not even a laugh, the presence here of around 200,000 chickens.

60 million eggs produced each year

On this July afternoon, we parked in front of the factory. At the entrance, vending machines offer bags of chicken droppings that individuals can use as fertilizer. A metallic gray Mercedes pulls off the road and pulls up in front of the gate. Behind the wheel, Cyril Gallès, the owner, has a cautious smile: “Is there anything else to do? The debates surrounding its creation exasperate him. “If I talk, you’ll put a coin back in the machine,” he squeals. Do your job, I’ll do mine. »

The exchange is cordial. But soon. The owner, with a few days’ beard, closes the window and his car runs to the farm. Water jets mixed with bleach spray the bodywork.

The industrial breeding operator did not want to answer our questions. LP/Remy Gabalda

The boss leaves, the questions remain. How can this man, who has built his success on the 60 million eggs he produces each year, arouse so much distrust in the village? Are the attacks “ideological”, as he suggests, or have the inhabitants detected a danger? How did a banal neighborhood conflict turn into a psychosis scrutinized by the city of Tarn, arrested by Greenpeace and in which dozens of people are now mired?

The controversy grew at the same time as the farm. A family story. Cyril Gallès’ grandfather settled on this departmental road in the 1960s. Just a few cocottes, at first. Neighboring villages love their eggs. The farm is expanding. In the early 1970s, the municipality authorized the Gallès family to house 14,000 chickens. Two decades later, the era is one of industrialization. Across France, farms are booming. Each year, of a billion animals slaughtered, 80% come from intensive agriculture. Also in Lescout, the farm has taken on industrial proportions: 60,000 chickens in 1991, 100,000 in 1995.

Flies annoy residents

The village sky and the roofs of the houses are gradually covered with flies. Mireille Ferrié, a former city councilor, has lived for thirty-five years 200 meters from the factory. Sitting at her living room table, she still remembers those mornings when she would “prepare breakfast for the children before waking them up”. She rolls her eyes: “When I got back, dozens of flies were floating in the cereal bowls. »

Faced with the exasperation of the environment, the Gallès took action. The flies disperse, the smell remains. In 2009, the farm still pushes its walls. The city hall authorizes the extension for up to 290,000 chickens, a number not yet reached today. At the same time, L214, the animal advocacy association, publishes its first shock investigations. Activists raid intensive farms at night. France discovers with horror the images of these chickens and pigs piled up in cages.

In Lescout, Cyril Gallès takes over the management of the family business. He installs fans on the walls of buildings where the birds live. At that time, Cédric, a child from the countryside across the village, is a truck driver. He regularly enters the farm to carry sacks of manure. “I parked my white truck next to the vents. In a few minutes, he was brown”, says the father of the family.

This foul air coming from the large hangars regularly floods the surroundings. At the heights of the village, 600 m from the farm in a straight line, the school students pay the price when they play in the playground. “We’ve had to bring them inside several times because the smell was so unpleasant,” explains Cathy Double, a former village school assistant. Some children tell their parents that they have “headaches” when they get home.

On Thursday nights, the village hall next to the school transforms into a sports club. Women from neighboring villages gather there. Séverine, a municipal employee, opens the door for them: “The smell was there all along. It was very powerful and those who came complained. »

“I smelled ammonia smoke”

The case took a legal turn when, in 2012, the Gavelles set their sights on the Château du Gua. The listed 18th century monument is at the entrance to the village, in the countryside. The old stones, the immense wooded land and the river at the edge of the land enchant this couple of rich entrepreneurs. Behind its cocoon of greenery, between two leafy trunks, we can see the chicken factory. “When we bought it, we didn’t know anything. We had seen that we were neighbors of the factory, but we visited on a day when not much was happening and we were happy to settle here,” says Jean-Luc Gavelle, black polo shirt with crocodile, sitting in his large renovated kitchen.

Jean-Luc Gavelle (left) and Olivier Catala (right) have been in proceedings since 2016 against their neighbor, a breeder of laying hens.
Jean-Luc Gavelle (left) and Olivier Catala (right) have been in proceedings since 2016 against their neighbor, a breeder of laying hens. LP/Remy Gabalda

The Gavelles sniff out trouble during their first dinners. “We had to go back home, it was so unbearable. It’s a very acidic smell, it doesn’t seem like a classic country smell”, describes the company’s manager. The noise of the fans irritates the couple a little more.

At the neighboring mill, the Catala people suffer the same discomfort. Olivier, her husband, has known Cyril Gallès since childhood. “I was in class with him,” he says. I tried several times to talk to him. I offered him to come to my house to sniff, but he never wanted to…”

Unable to find an agreement. The dispute will be resolved in court. Start of the Gavelle-Catala v. Gallès case. “The iron pot against the clay pot”, breathes Catherine Gavelle. Jean-Luc’s wife takes the fight from a distance. “We had never used lawyers before. He surrounded himself with an entire team. We had no idea what we were getting into. »

In 2016, an expert was appointed by the Court of Appeal of Toulouse. His name: Charles Ruffinoni, doctor of ecology, more than 300 expertises to his credit. His mission: to check, on site, for odors and noises. “I remember very well the first night I went to Lescout, it rewinds today. I was returning from Toulouse and it was summer. I parked on the heights of the village and breathed. My throat stung me. My eyes too. I smelled ammonia. What the families described was true. Ammonia is a substance found in bird droppings.

Charles Ruffinoni was appointed legal expert in the case.  He is the first to mention the potential danger of factory smoke.
Charles Ruffinoni was appointed legal expert in the case. He is the first to mention the potential danger of factory smoke. LP/Remy Gabalda

In the following weeks, the machine gun flow specialist returns to the village. He sniffs, visits the farm, questions the residents. He is informed of headaches and nausea. “During a demonstration organized by the municipality at the City Hall (…), residents vomited, without explanation”, he wrote in a note sent to the parties. For the first time, he raises a concern and says he is “concerned”: “If our fears were confirmed by specific technical measures, we would be obliged to alert the health authorities to the situation. His words are like a bomb. What if, for a long time, the inhabitants of Lescout were in danger?

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