After a break of seven months from poultry production, NFU poultry board chairman Charles Bourns is back in business. He is rearing 40,000 birds under the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme.
Why Freedom Foods? Reducing the stocking density would work well with his busy schedule. “I spend much time away from the unit I have a helper and both my son and daughter muck in at various times. So having a lower stocking density and a relaxed approach makes it easier,” he says.
Reducing the stocking density from 56,000 to 40,000 birds also allows the choice of withdrawing from the IPPC rules if the first flock performs well, as the current threshold is 40,000 birds.
“I signed for IPPC last year and, to be honest, this is an old site. To come up with what is required it would probably cost £100,000 to meet the requirements, and I doubt if it’s worth it.
“I haven’t made the decision yet because I want to see how well the first flock of Freedom Foods does. If they do not perform and I don’t make a profit out of them, maybe I’ll go back to standard chicken. I’m leaving my options open,” he says.
He also admits to feeling guilty being out of production. “As the NFU chairman [of the poultry board], I go along to meetings and have to make sure I can relate to producer problems and issues, otherwise they might just as well have any man in a suit representing them. I also passionately believe producers must be represented by working producers.”
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (left) helps Charles Bourns tips chicks for his first Freedom Food flock.
Dropping the bird numbers and choosing Freedom Foods will, hopefully, enable him to make a comfortable margin.
“I don’t want to make a loss – I want my costs covered. But it also brings a site that can suit what I do within the industry as well as myself.”
But he doesn’t think that welfare should be judged by stocking density.
“The producer who is growing chickens looks after them to the best of his ability and gives them the highest welfare that he possible can. I believe you will find bad examples of production in all systems, whether organic, free-range or Freedom Foods,” he says.
“Above all, our job as producers is to survive and produce what the consumer wants. This is the secret of its success.”
Why work with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall?
By working with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as part of his new four-part TV series River Cottage Spring, which started two weeks ago on 28 May on Channel 4, he hopes to be able to get this message across to the consumer through the power of TV. He has taken what he describes as a “calculated risk”.
“If I don’t put myself forward to do the programme then I won’t get the opportunity to get my point across. So, I have allowed him as much access as he wants.
“Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall believes in what he is doing and sometimes you have to go along with people so that you can try to get a message across to the consumer through TV.
“If he leaves after this flock knowing that chicken producers aren’t cruel, then I have achieved something,” he says.
“He’ll return when the chicks are older to see what’s going on, so it’s education both ways,” he adds.
But the nature of editing and the agenda of the programme could see Mr Bourns’ message being altered.
“They can chop things around and change the order of the questions, but sometimes you have to take people at face value.”
“If he does take a negative angle it will annoy me and I will be annoyed because the people within the industry that think I was wrong to get involved with Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall will have been proved right,” he says.
“What I would like to come across from the programme is that whatever chicken you want to buy as a consumer, you know that it has been grown to the highest welfare standards.”
He believes that producers are keener to open up after Channel 4’s programmes in January, which portrayed the sector as being closed and secretive.
What is the NFU doing to champion poultry farming?
He feels that the NFU needs to find new ways to get its messages through about what it represents and does.
“Our membership represents 75% of production in England and Wales and is an organisation with a variety of departments from environmental to communications. Everything is here, but we don’t seem to get the message through to producers unless there is a crisis.
“The NFU is available to help producers if they are having problems with planning, legal issues, the market environment. We are doing a huge amount of work with IPPC from the president, director general down.
“We need to spend more time talking to our members and to spread the word about just what we do. It’s an education process,” he says. “The Pig and Poultry Fair has demonstrated this to everyone. I was really proud of the whole team there.”
And along with the recent Open Farm Sunday event, he would like to see further open days around the country, where more producers are encouraged to open their farm gates to the public. “I believe seeing is believing,” he says.
In the spring of 2008 the NFU is launching a new “Why Farming Matters Campaign” for the poultry and egg industry, following on from previous success from other sectors in the industry.
What are your thoughts on the cage ban?
With the 2012 cage ban looming, the NFU has decided its policy will be to promote the colony system and not gives false hopes over an extension.
“We want to try and persuade the EU and the European Commission to change the wording from ‘enriched cage’ to ‘colony’. The reason behind this is that conventional cages are to be banned and the colony is something completely different.”
He would also like to see the number four code stamped on eggs to represent the colony system. It would help to distinguish it from the number three code that currently marks cage eggs and a code that will disappear in 2012.
What future does British chicken farming have?
“There is a huge pressure on producers to compete with imports,” he says.
“We are not getting enough money to cover costs but if we go out of business they [retailers and some processors] will import chicken from countries such as Thailand or Brazil where they have opportunities to use drugs that are banned here.”
“At the NFU we spent time talking to supermarkets to make them aware just what the cost of production is at farm level.”
“There is a brilliant future for British farming if we work together and pull our weight. We should stop being so humble and start selling ourselves. After all 74% of the people want our products.”
“The EU exports from Brazil account for just 2% of their market, will they be so obliging if they get a more dominant position. A position most industries would sell their soul for,” he says.