New figures released in the last month have shown a lift in free-range chicken sales in the first few weeks of 2008, but planning battles could be the main hurdle to further growth.

Several sets of figures have been published in recent weeks showing increases in free-range sales. First came a survey by G2 Data Dynamics which suggested 38% of consumers have switched from intensively farmed chicken to free-range since Channel 4 aired its Big Food Fight series in early January.

Then The Independent suggested a 35% increase in February over the previous month. The article also highlighted reports of stores stripped of free-range birds with consumers complaining of the empty shelves.

Tesco has reacted by doubling its order for premuim chicken, including free range and Willow Farm. This will bring the proportion of higher welfare chicken Tesco sells up to about 30% of total chicken sales.

Tesco media director Jonathan Church said: “We have been working hard for a while to increase the amount of higher welfare chicken we sell.”

However, Jeremy Blackburn of the British Poultry Council highlighted the practicality of meeting rising demand.

“Planning is a big issue currently holding up processors expanding free-range chicken operations. As soon as a producer lodges a planning request, local communities object putting the application into a lengthy process.”

It will take time to bring increased capacity online, he said.