When considering livestock for a smallholding, the place people usually start are with chickens. They are small and easy to handle; friendly and undiscerning in their choice of where to live. A dry and draught-free abode are the only pre-requisites. They will reward you with endless entertainment as they go about their business searching for whatever they can find during the daylight hours. They’re relatively easy to look after as well. Apart from feeding and cleaning out, the only other requirement is to make sure you shut them up come nightfall to avoid uninvited night-time visitors. The other obvious reward of keeping chickens is of course their eggs and, if you are so inclined, meat.
Chicken and eggs have in recent years become one of the most popular and also possibly the most contentious item in our shopping basket. One of the major developments in livestock production since the latter half of the 20th century is genetic development through breeding. This is no truer than with the humble hen. Breeding of hens for either eggs or meat has become so centralised and specialised that egg production of even a typical free-range bird will achieve up to 300 eggs per year before going to be culled for chicken soup. A far cry from our grandparent’s day when a chicken would have produced less than half this number of eggs per year, before going on to feed the family once it had finished its productive lay. A typical 2kg broiler can reach their weight in less than 40 days. That’s an average daily weight gain of nearly 50g or 2oz per day. Given this, it might come as no surprise that in 1950 chicken was considered a luxury item and accounted for only 1% of meat consumption in the UK. That figure is now over 50%.
The broiler was an unknown term until the late 1950’s when ‘grilling’ or broiling chickens were being made available from the USA. Common present-day breeds (or more accurately hybrids) bear the names of the now large corporations that have developed the modern day broiler or layer and continue to own the genetics. Shaver, Hubbard, Ross and Cobb are familiar names in the meat chicken world. Rhode Island, White Leghorn and Sussex are common names in the laying world. These breeding developments led to the keeping of larger and larger flocks; many kept indoors and in small cages. The combination of fast-growing chickens, high egg yields and large flocks have all driven the cost of production of eggs and meat down to make it so easily accessible today.
Chickens are descended from Asian birds whose natural behaviour is scratching around the forest floor, heading to roost in trees away from predators as night falls. Shade and access to insect-rich tree litter are the key words here. This is the basis for advocates of the free range system. Organic systems are all free range and also restrict the size of flocks, as well as making sure feed is from organic sources. This is the approach we take at River Cottage HQ. While undoubtedly free range, organic eggs and poultry meat are more expensive as a result, the welfare assurances you get, as well as the superior quality and taste, make this increased price totally worthwhile. If this is hard on the pocket, then the message to all of us is to eat less of it and be more imaginative in how to make it go further.