Farmer Harry Irwin has been rearing free-range British chicken for Tesco for more than 10 years. We speak to him about the welfare of the chickens on his farm, and his role in the supply chain
You’re a free-range chicken farmer. What does that involve?
Free-range birds are reared for longer and enjoy an outdoor life, which results in improved flavour and texture. As they don’t have many feathers when they’re chicks, we start them off in purpose-built houses, where it’s nice and warm, for up to 28 days.
When the chicks reach 28 days old we open the pop-holes, so they can go in and out of the house. We encourage them to explore outdoors by providing a combination of trees and man-made shelters. On a windy day, they tend to look out from the veranda. When it’s sunny, they like the shade of the trees.
Inside the house they have access to fresh water and food 24/7. We also give them perches and pecking objects – such as shiny discs and wooden blocks – to encourage natural behaviours, and provide straw bales so that they can jump, play and exercise. It’s fantastic to watch them – they’re very happy chickens!
How can customers be sure that the chickens are raised to a high standard of care?
Our farmers have to adhere to strict legislation and the Tesco Chicken Standard is one of the toughest standards in the industry. It’s a combination of all the chicken standards, from RSPCA to Red Tractor, and covers every aspect of a chicken’s life. Tesco also uses an independent party to monitor its farms and carry out regular spot-check inspections.
How do people know British chicken is good quality?
Our free-range chickens are slow-growing and enjoy an active, low-stress life. We’ve selected a breed, the Hubbard, which is better suited to an outdoor lifestyle. Hubbard chickens enjoy ranging and are naturally inquisitive. Outside, they have access to fresh pastures where they can indulge in natural behaviours, such as foraging, grazing, dust-bathing and socialising. The combination of a longer and more active life helps to produce a flavoursome bird with a meatier texture.
All our chickens are also 100% traceable. We can trace every single chicken back to the farm and house where it was reared, and even as far back as the hatchery and breeder farm.
Has chicken farming changed over the past 10 years?
The past decade has seen a huge change in chicken farming. When we set up 10 years ago, demand for free-range was in its infancy. We’ve gone from rearing 50,000 free-range chickens a week to about 150,000 birds. People are more aware of where their food comes from and we’ve seen a rise in sales of whole free-range birds for a special treat, such as Sunday roasts.
What impact does chicken farming have on the environment?
Rearing free-range chicken is a sustainable system. The byproducts are used, as well as the chickens. The litter and manure from each flock is transported to a power station to produce electricity. We also don’t use any fertiliser, herbicides or pesticides, so we have a low impact on the environment.
What skills do you need to be a farmer?
You have to be passionate about animals. It’s not a typical nine-to-five job where you can just switch off: you’re always thinking about your chickens. No matter what day it is, we’re always here.
What type of feed do you give your chickens?
We know every ingredient that goes into our chickens’ feed. Their diets are formulated by a team of nutritionists, who ensure the birds get what they need at each stage of life. For the first four weeks they’re fed a wheat-based diet in a crumb form. As the chickens get older, we switch to a slightly larger pellet. Then, at 28 days, Finest* birds move on to a corn-based diet, which contains 50% maize (for extra succulence), while Willow Farm free-range birds continue with a wheat-based diet.
Why should customers choose free-range chicken?
Customers are already actively choosing to buy free-range British chicken when they can, because they know it has been reared well and has a superb flavour and great texture. As one of the leanest meats available to buy, our free-range chicken makes a delicious and healthy family meal at any time of the year. We’re very proud of the free-range British chicken we produce for Tesco.
From July 2013, all of Tesco’s fresh chicken will be 100% British.