Wednesday, 9 January 2008
I watch very little television, partly because my irregular weekly routine means I can’t guarantee that I’ll be in on a particular day to see the next episode of a series, and partly because I’m a culture snob who thinks most telly is pants. An exception, for me, is the wonderful Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who never fails to make me smile. I’ve really enjoyed watching his recent series, Hugh’s Chicken Run, in which he tries to change the nation’s attitudes about cheap chicken. Baffled that two chickens can be purchased from Tesco for a fiver, he tries to find out the detail of why they’re so cheap. Of course, they’re battery hens, and intensively farmed, which is why they cost so little. But what does that actually mean?
All of the supermarkets refuse to appear in a filmed interview about chicken. No intensive farm will let him film inside one of their sheds. To understand chicken production, Hugh sets up three different chicken farms: one smallholder-style, on an allotment with a single coop; one larger free-range farm, and; one intensive factory-style farm. Both the free-range and the intensive farms had been set up according to poultry industry guidelines. There isn’t a smallholder industry to speak of, and so no official guidelines exist, but Hugh’s probably the nearest thing there is to an authority on smallholding. The central point is this: all three farms were set up to be as close as was possible to the normal conditions of farms around the country.
I suspect that Hugh’s example of a factory farm was less horrific than its larger cousins. Nonetheless, it was still grim. The floor was rammed with fat birds, waddling a few steps forward to feed, then a few back to sit down again in their own effluent. The hens have nothing to do all day except eat. And worse yet, the lights are left on for twenty-three-and-a-half hours at a time - if the birds think that it’s ‘daytime’ they’ll eat and eat and eat. I think Hugh’s made a difficult moral choice in deciding to publicly undertake a practice that he finds abhorrent in order to expose it. I think he’s made the right choice.
And will it change the eating habits of Axminster or the rest of the wider TV watching audience? I don’t know. But I’ll be buying free-range hereafter. One down…
The Lie of the Land was also superb.
EDIT: Here are some links to feedback from HFW's TV series. It made me angry when Hugh was driven to swearing in the last episode of the ...Chicken Run. He's so nice that anything that makes him swear must be really infuriating.
Manchester Evening News.
Hugh's Chicken Out Campaign Page
BBC Farmers' World Feedback Podcast