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Free range chicken and produce

BRITAIN LOVES CHICKEN! Really loves it... The average Brit eats almost 25kg of chicken a year.  More than 850 million broiler chickens are slaughtered every year in the UK. And of these hundreds of millions of chickens, most of them - more than 95% - are reared inside, produced in industrial conditions in vast, enclosed sheds. These carry the "red tractor" logo if they have been reared in UK.  "Their lives are pitiful – but at least they’re short..." says Hugh Fernley Whittingstall. 

Standard chickens are grown from newly hatched chick to oven-ready bird in an astonishing 39 days, that’s just over 5 weeks. (An organic chicken, which grows at a natural pace, takes more than twice as long.)

How do they do this?
Poultry scientists have bred chickens which grow fast. As they grow, their living space – smaller than an A4 piece of paper for each bird – gets more and more cramped as they near the end of their short lives. With around 17 birds packed into each square metre they have barely enough space to walk, preen themselves, stretch their wings or even turn around.

Such cramped conditions and rapid growth cause severe welfare problems. Chronic lameness is common – one third of chickens have difficulty walking without pain. The stress on their hearts and lungs can cause heart failure. About 5% die or have to be culled prematurely.

A typical chicken shed holds 40,000 birds… They never set foot outside or see natural light… They feed around the clock - with as little as one hour of darkness for every 24 hour period.

It’s not nice – but it’s certainly cheap. And THAT is how Tesco can afford to offer you two whole birds for a fiver… Or how Asda can sell a whole fresh British chicken for £2.

There is another way… BUT IT INVOLVES YOU being prepared to pay more for your chicken. 

The natural way for a chicken to live is outdoors – with grass under its feet, and the sun on its back. Outdoor access is fundamental to the free range system of poultry production.  The birds are still commercially produced, often farmed in large numbers and destined for the oven, but they have more space and lead more natural, longer lives, a minimum of 56 days instead of 39 which results in SUPERIOR taste and texture so it's not just ethics you get for your additional money it's quality.  

Pop holes are open all day long, giving them access to natural light, to fresh air and open space.   And when they choose to go inside, they have more space, and an enriched environment: straw bales to perch and jump on, even footballs to play with.  Which is good, because chickens are sociable, curious creatures. They like to range, they love to roost in shaded areas and they have a keen sense of hierarchy – their place in the pecking order.

Free range birds do cost more to produce; so they will cost you more. In the supermarkets you’ll pay well over £5 for a whole bird and when the chicken farmer and a butcher both gets paid a living, fair wage it will cost you considerably more.

Is it worth the extra? It’s down to you. You can boycott cheap chicken. You can demand better welfare standards from your supermarket. Or you could make a pledge to always buy a free range bird for the family roast.   If you care not just for the chicken but farmer welfare and local shops and small businesses then perhaps you'll go even further and buy from butchers or online shops such as ours that guarantee that our prices are higher because people are getting paid fairly.

So the next time you do buy a chicken, think about how it has been reared. And remember that your choice will help to determine the future of British chicken farming… 

Click here for more information on intensive chicken farming from Compassion in World Farming (CIWF)

Outlined below are the main labels you'll see and what they actually mean.  Beware of the red tractor!  It may sound quaint but it is basically broiler chickens reared indoors.  Be even more alert to imported chicken which for countries like Brazil and Thailand have no welfare standards whatsoever!

Red Tractor
This is the standard chicken. Around 90% of all British chickens - about 774 million birds each year - are produced according to Red Tractor's Assured Chicken Production (ACP) guidelines.  This was the type shown on Chicken Out.  Typically, birds live indoors in windowless sheds for 40 days until they reach a slaughter weight of 2.2 kilos. Ventilation, temperature, feed, water and lighting are carefully controlled.  Large sheds house up to 50,000 birds, although 25,000 is more common. The rules allow 38 kilos of chicken per square metre - that’s about 18 birds when near slaughter weight. The equivalent in area to an A4 piece of paper for each chicken.

Critics consider the ACP system to be inhumane. Birds can develop painful leg and hip injuries because of their restricted movement and rapid weight gain. Chickens typically have no perches or benches, and the sheds are dimly lit to discourage activity.

Defenders argue that ACP is a highly efficient and well-regulated system for producing affordable chicken. “The Red Tractor logo really does count for high standards, and Britain produces the safest poultry meat in the EU,” says Peter Bradnock, chief executive for The British Poultry Council.   It's all relative of course!  But above all else avoid imported chicken.  Countries such as Brazil and Thailand, which in 2007 exported 120,000 tonnes of chicken meat to the UK, have no animal welfare legislation at all.

So that's what you get if your chicken is costing around £2.50.  If you want something different the following table from Hugh Fernley Whittingstall's site outlines the different labels.

3 meals in 1 - Delicious meals to help get value for your money.

Another 3 meals in 1 - Bit more spicy...?

Poultry pages - Learn more about rearing and keeping poultry - everything you seemingly need to know from building coops, aggressive chickens and whether it's economically worth it.

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