In the UK we now consume more chicken than pork, lamb and beef combined.

To put this into perspective, last year over 1 billion chickens were reared in this country. This equates to 2.7 million chickens a day for a population of 65 million. The UK chicken industry as a whole is worth over £4billion a year and employs some 37,000 people.

Looking at the stacked shelves in any major supermarket, or the buckets of deep-fried morsels dished out by high street chains, it is clear why these numbers are so big. The country’s favourite meat is no longer the occasional treat roasted on a Sunday by previous generations, but a volume business under pressure to satisfy the nation’s growing demand for cheap, easily attainable protein.

Intensive farming practices

Industrialised, large-scale commercial abattoirs and intensively reared chicken “factory farms” are working in overdrive – they typically raise 27,000 chickens per shed – and have ended up creating a hunger for even more poultry products priced far lower than their true cost. At this volume, animal welfare is secondary to business interests. Large processing plants simply do not have the time to treat each bird with respect. In this context, chicken is viewed as a commodity rather than a living animal with feelings and needs.

These ‘processing plants’ typically run three production lines, capable of handling 30,000 live chickens an hour.

Chickens reared in intensive farming systems spend their whole lives indoors in large, air-conditioned barns with no access to the outside world. Their genetic traits are such that they put on weight at a staggering rate of around 50g every day. By 22 days old they resemble fully grown chickens and soon occupy all of the limited space available to them. After just 44 days, they are sent off to be slaughtered, which often involves a long journey by road in a crowded crate to an abattoir. These ‘processing plants’ typically run three production lines, capable of handling 30,000 live chickens an hour. The live chickens are swiftly transformed into stripped carcasses, ready for shipping to facilities around the country for portioning and packaging, before travelling again for further processing elsewhere by butchers, food manufacturers and supermarkets.

Since intensively reared birds are kept indoors and denied access to roam freely, they tend not to develop strong immune systems, so disease can spread quickly. To counteract this risk, antibiotics are routinely mixed with their feed or water – some chickens consume twice their weight in antibiotics within the first 14 days of their lives. There is growing evidence that human resistance to antibiotics is in part fuelled by its widespread use in some farming systems.

Because they are bred to put on weight rapidly, intensively reared chickens struggle to support their own body mass as they grow, so spend most of their day sitting on their own droppings. High in ammonia, these droppings burn skin and many suffer from hock burns.

Is there an alternative?

At Daylesford we are not happy with the conditions of intensively reared chicken or the fact that factory meat has become an everyday staple. We believe in eating high quality, high welfare, sustainably produced meat, less often as part of a healthy, balanced and nourishing diet. This approach is better for your own wellbeing as well as that of the animals and the planet.

Sadly, it is simply not possible to produce high welfare, free-range birds to the current volume demanded in the UK. Fewer than 5% of chickens in the UK are reared in a free-range or organic system – which is why your choices matter and really do make a difference.

Daylesford has its own hatchery and chicken abattoir, both certified to organic standards by the Soil Association and approved by the Food Standards Agency. By owning our own hatchery and chicken abattoir we can ensure the best standards every step of the way.

Our organic parent flock lays organic eggs which are incubated in our own hatchery to provide organic chicks; only one other company in the UK does this. Our organic chicks are raised to the highest welfare standards on our organic farm in Staffordshire. Like all our animals, we purposely choose a slow-growing breed with a natural instinct to explore and enjoy a varied, organic, forage-based diet: ideal for our truly free-range, organic environment. Our chicken fields now have an electric fence to protect them against predators such as foxes and badgers around the clock, so our chickens may range freely night and day.

After 70 days, the mature birds travel less than a mile across fields to our organic abattoir. We keep automation to a minimum, with as much of the process performed by hand as possible. Every aspect is overseen by an experienced Food Standards Agency veterinarian working to Soil Association organic standards.

This initiative supports the UN Sustainable Development Goals.