Brothers Stephen and Richard Tulip are fourth- generation poultry keepers, with almost a decade's experience of range management at Lintz Hall Farm near Newcastle.
The flock of about 200,000 birds is split into two sections: the Derwent Valley brand covers the free-range output, while eggs from colony-caged birds are marketed as Premier Quality Eggs.
The brothers put up their first 16,000-bird free-range shed in 2003, with a second building erected after 12 months and a 32,000-bird multi-tier shed a couple of years later. They also buy in free-range eggs from other local producers, taking the free-range flock to more than 130,000 birds. The production system complies with the Lion code, as well as the RSPCA's Freedom Food standard.
The ISA Warren and Bovan brown hens have full access to approximately 16ha of grass paddocks surrounding each building. While Stephen admits that not all the birds forage at the far end of the paddocks, the entire flock spends at least some time outside each day.
"When we started off, we wondered whether we were seeing the same birds outside all the time, or whether sections of the flock were taking turns in leaving the building," he says. "But we are now certain that virtually every bird ranges, as we've noticed that in wet weather they all have mud on their feet when they roost."
One essential component of range maintenance is an effective drainage system, advises Stephen. The main paddocks have a herringbone layout, while two separate lengths of drainage pipework surround the sheds. The outer length has been laid around 20m from the perimeter and connects to the field drains, which are back-filled with gravel.
To protect the area around the popholes, a 6-8m strip of crushed brick has been laid and topped with a 10cm layer of 40mm grade clean stone (see picture above).
"Used on its own, the hardcore will quickly become capped and very dirty," says Stephen. "We learned this lesson the hard way and have recently had to partially remove a layer of hardcore, which will have stone overlaid."
The hens frequently range alongside a large number of horses, which are kept at livery on the farm, as well as in the hay fields. The two species coexist peacefully, says Richard, and there have been no bird losses linked to the horses. The grass is harrowed and rolled in spring and autumn.
Hawthorn hedges have long been a feature of the landscape and the brothers have carried out several improvements to the existing system, as part of their efforts to provide cover and encourage ranging. Where hedge boundaries are flanked by sheep netting, the base of the wire is folded back, to allow the birds access to the horse paddocks.
The business is signed up to the Farm Woodland Scheme and there are several copses within the range. While the hens will go into the woods, most prefer to spend time close to the hedge lines. The trees improve the range quality, although their roots can cause problems with drainage systems.
Standard sheep netting was initially used for the boundaries, but frequent escapes persuaded the brothers to invest in deer-style fencing, which is buried 15cm underground to deter digging. However, it has since been found that standard netting will work successfully, if placed at least 200m away from the building, as the birds are reluctant to fly over the barrier at this distance.
One problem the Tulips have encountered is managing the long grass at the height of the growing season, so the area is mown on a regular basis to discourage marauding foxes.
There is no set re-seeding policy, but a specific grass mix is selected for paddock regeneration.
"Both the horses and the hens can cause considerable damage to the pasture," says Stephen. "We have found that it's worth paying a bit more for a hard-wearing grass species mix which doesn't grow too high. An ordinary agricultural blend would deteriorate very quickly in our paddocks."
Some weeds also benefit the land, for example, creeping bent, which spreads out horizontally to create a degree of matting.
Another tip for managing hens and horses together is to site troughs well away from the building.
"If the troughs are too close and the birds use them for drinking, the water quickly becomes contaminated and could potentially spread disease," says Stephen. "We have changed the layout and installed additional pipework."