There are just a few chickens to be seen in the area outside the hut at the Happy Eggs Co Bulbourne Farm in Tring, Hertfordshire. The farmer Jean-Paul (JP) Michalski reckons it’s because it’s too hot for them to come out, but it might just be because they’re camera shy.
They’ve had a lot of visiting journalists recently. Happy Eggs Co, owned and monitored by Noble Foods, are keen to show just how contented their chickens are and have been issuing invites to the press left, right and centre. So the 14,000 strong chook flock, housed in huts spaced across the 120 acre farm could be excused for having a’want to be alone’ moment.
Now of course serious food journalists would spurn such invitations, preferring to drop in totally unannounced or come over the wire at night dressed as anarchists. Well the first option wasn’t really practical for us and the second we dismissed because neither I nor the photographer wanted to get our noses pierced.
So there is the suspicion that, rather like a care home for the elderly warned of an imminent inspection, the managers have sent the moaners and troublemakers off for the day and shoved all the dead bodies into a locked room out of sight.
That’s cynical though. On this brilliant sunny day, the chickens we see do indeed seem very happy, although chickens tend to have a rather malignant expression at the best of times. Those that have braved the 30 degree plus heat outside are making contented’book book’ noises and drumming on the toes of our boots with their beaks like Gene Krupa after too much coffee.
Ã¢â‚¬ËœAll these young trees will soon grow to provide lots of lovely shade for them,’ says JP talking about the wild pear and other fruit trees planted in profusion about the shed area. The hen sheds, which resemble something out of Tenko, are themselves large and airy and are regularly dragged, literally, to new locations to give the hens pastures new to peck about in.
Novelty is important to chickens apparently, they are inquisitive creatures JP says, and this explains why structures normally seen in a kids’ playground are dotted about the hens’ large open areas. Chickens it seems, are girls who just wanna have fun.
Each morning the sides of the sheds are flung open and, when it isn’t so very hot, a tsunami of feathers floods out as the hens eagerly get outside to begin their day pecking at the ground, dust bathing and playing with the toys. Research has shown that bored, unhappy hens don’t just have a lower quality of life, they also lay less good eggs too.
In the sheds the smell is, well actually there is very little smell at all thanks to a grating that lets the droppings naturally fall away from the hens’ laying and sleeping areas. The hens are free to come and go as they please all day long and the hut design means that fresh air constantly passes in and up to exit through the top vents so making it pleasantly cool and breezy despite the sun beating on the roof.
The eggs the hens lay here in the semi shade roll gently to the back of the laying area where a small conveyor belt trundles them outside to be placed in boxes. It’s all very calm and the chickens are as docile as family pets; cheerfully nibbling at feed and taking water from the constant supply fed to their small beak-activated drippers.
JP picks up random chickens and strokes them, which they seem to enjoy, and he explains that he can tell the health of the hens from such inspections. Hens apparently peck at each other when stressed so the feathers look bad and they would not be amenable to being picked up if they weren’t happy.
Of course the elephant in the hen house is what happens when the hens’ laying days are over? Well as you’ve probably guessed they are not given a lethal injection and full military honours burial in a plot overlooking the setting sun, but sold for meat to the far east.
The average life expectancy of a laying hen is fourteen months, when in fact they could live for over fourteen years, but old chickens do not lay satisfactory eggs for the supermarket buyers. JP does try and find the hens a life after lay, but with so many chickens becoming redundant all the time, only a small percentage can ever be rehomed.
Rather sad but the art of farming is one mixing pragmatism with decency. Happy Egg Co farms, as far as we could tell and were shown, are doing everything they can to ensure their hens are properly and ethically treated and the result is better eggs for everyone.
So pay the extra pence for Happy Eggs Co eggs when you’re next out shopping and see if you can taste the difference. Maybe you’ll end up happier too.