A Question of Chicken - What 'Free Range' Really Means

A Question of Chicken - What 'Free Range' Really Means


By Rachel Lovell
13, February 2020

 

Chicken is a tricky one. Once plucked and prepared, there are few clues to guide you to a good bird. Food standard labels are a good starting point, but truth is they can only tell you so much, and whether its Red Tractor, RSPCA Assured or Organic, standards can vary wildly within each bracket. The meat industry can be confusing to say the least, and at worst it can also be horribly corrupt. Buying straight from the producer, or as close as you can get, is the best way to navigate your way to good food produced with respect for animal, environment and consumer.

Here are four aspects that we hope bring this to life for you.

The Birds

An industrial chicken is a highly bred creature. Plastered with patents and designed with profit in mind, it’s no exaggeration to say that theirs is a troubled existence. They are typically bred to be ready for slaughter within 35 days, compared with the 12 weeks for a Pipers Farm bird. This rapid growth puts an enormous strain on the body of the bird, especially when they have been selected with an emphasis on breast meat, which their immature legs and heart often just don’t have the strength to support. Animal welfare aside, this also has a big impact in the kitchen. Fine wine, cheddar and men all improve with age, and the same applies to chickens. Our beautiful birds are French Hubbards, a robust breed that thrives in our truly outdoors farming system. They are hatched in Devon and then head to our partner farmer Holly, who runs a small-scale farm with her husband in the nearby rolling hills. And with triple the time for maturation, the meat, marrow and bones all bring more to the table.

 

The Freedom

There’s free-range, and there’s Properly Free-Range. The farming standards legally required to use this label in the UK are surprisingly low, with birds only required to have access to the outdoors for half their lives. Some may be kept in barns with natural light, and be given 'enrichment devices' such as perches and pecking objects, but it is not a requirement. In contrast, the starting point for poultry farming is the life we want to give our birds, not the minimum gestures required to tick some boxes on a form. Free to forage, dust bathe, venture and unfurl their feathers, Pipers Farm birds have acres to explore with grass under their feet as soon as they are big enough to go outside. We dot shelters around the fields to encourage them to explore (they like having a bit of cover) all of which adds up to a healthy bird with a robust bone structure and tendons, and ultimately contributes to the nutritional value of the resulting meat and bone broths. Of equal importance is that we move our chicken sheds from field to field. This was always standard practice in the past, as no matter how careful your farming, keeping birds in once place causes soil erosion and disease build-up. In contrast, as we rotate the fields we rear our birds on, the soil has time to recover and we have no problems with diseases like Campylobacter. Our birds are simply happier creatures too. Once you see the relish with which a chicken gobbles up a juicy worm or chases a passing bug, it’s difficult to imagine how a life in a soulless indoor system compares.

 

The Food

 

Industrial birds eat grey nuts. Homogenised ground up feed that is fine tuned to get that growth galloping, it’s a formula that has as little regard for the environment as it does for the true wellbeing of the bird. Meanwhile our flocks forage for insects, grasses and legumes among the lush Devon pastures and feast on wholegrain corn and barley. Chickens are monogastric animals, which means they can’t survive on pasture alone – their stomach systems are not sophisticated enough to extract the energy and protein they need. This means nutrient-packed grains and proteins are a crucial part of their diet, but we believe in the simple approach. Industrial feed is usually brimming with unsustainable soy, as it packs the protein punch birds need, but is a global food system approach that has complicated repercussions, as anyone with an eye on the environment will know. Having said that, our chicks are briefly fed a feed mix that has soy as part of it, during a crucial stage of their growth to ensure they are strong enough to go outside after three weeks. Historically this would have been fish meal, which is no longer permitted. We don’t like feeding them soy and are actively seeking an alternative.

 

The Finish

The way an animal is handled at slaughter and how the carcass is treated subsequently has a huge impact on the meat. Ours don’t even leave the farm they are reared on for this stage – it’s all handled quietly and calmly by the same family farmers who rear the animals. Without the need for travel it reduces the carbon footprint of the meat and cuts out the stress that would otherwise come to the birds at this stage. The animals are stunned at a low pace and by hand, and care is taken to ensure that every bird goes through the stunner (an electrified tank of water) for the correct length of time. The neck artery is then cut and they are bled out and plucked. All the giblets are included when we deliver your whole bird – we don’t sell these separately to boost our bottom line like industrial producers do.

We believe in better farming, with a 360° respect for the environment, farmer, animals and you, the customer. Chickens mean a lot to us too, as it was after seeing the introduction of industrial poultry systems that prompted Pipers Farm founds Peter and Henri to start farming sustainably almost 30 years ago. They were determined to produce good, healthy, wholesome food that they could feed to their family with confidence. We hope that by sharing the story of how our chickens are reared today you can see that those principles have only got stronger.

You can explore our Properly Free-Range Chicken collection here.

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