Thursday, 10 January 2008

'Hugh's Chicken Run'

'Hugh's Chicken Run' - this was the name of 3 programmes held over the past three evenings on channel 4 as part of a food season. Unfortunately I didn't see episode two on Tuesday but the first and last programmes turned out to be sufficient to get the drift. In essence we had Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (who I shall refer to as HFW from now on in if you don't mind) putting forward the case for more naturally reared chickens for the table as opposed to the very cheap factory produced articles loved by supermarkets and consumers alike. HFW did his best to convert the good folk in the East Devon town of Axminster to change their buying habits from the typically two chickens for £5 in the local Tesco and Co-op supermarkets to the more naturally prepared bird costing a good deal more.

HFW went for a three pronged attack: in no particular order I'll summarise them as follows -
  • He acquired an old sizable chicken shed which he split into two. Purchasing day old chicks half were kept on an intensive system and killed out at 39 days. In order to obtain the required rapid gain in weight daylight was simulated by keeping the lights on for 23 and a half hours out of 24 and no outside access was given to the birds. Typically stocking density is 17 chickens to the square metre with this system. One of the biggest welfare problems is that of leg troubles as the bird isn't designed to carry the sort of weight it develops in the very short time span. Those few chickens that had this problem were removed and humanely destroyed, even to the extent of one bird that was just three days off the cull. The other half of the shed was employed as a free range unit with lower stocking density and access to grass outside. These latter went to slaughter at 56 days. HFW had some trouble finding an experienced stockman to run the unit but eventually a chap from Northern Ireland was prepared to put his head above the parapet. The reasoning for this whole exercise was to show and contrast the two types of chicken rearing to the public.
  • HFW wanted to engage the major supermarkets in discussions about chickens being sold up to a welfare standard rather than down to a price. By and large they ignored his entreaties for meetings: Tesco kept half promising things that didn't materialise, Waitrose lent a sympathetic ear toward the end and I think ultimately Sainsbury were prepared to listen to his suggestions. Tesco have a store at Axminster and following a misunderstanding between HFW and their local manager fences were mended and the store participated in a week of promoting free range chickens which was partially successful.
  • A further interesting challenge instigated by HFW was to engage with the residents on a low income estate in the town to look after some of his birds with the ultimate aim of killing and cooking them. A disused part of a local allotment was employed for the purpose with the residents erecting fencing, setting up a chicken house and generally looking after the birds. Uncomfortable viewing for some maybe but the filming of these people being shown how to kill out their birds was included.
From a personal perspective there was little in the programmes that I wasn't aware of but I am very conscious of the enormous disconnect for many people between the purchase of food in a supermarket and what happens to said food before it arrives looking so clinically perfect in the shops. I don't relish the sight of any form of animal or bird being slaughtered but it is absolutely right that viewers should be informed about what happens - no holds barred. It could be a few more become vegetarian!

All in all this mini series flagged up some important questions. well done to the residents of Axminster for being prepared to be on film.

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