We kept chickens on the commune where I grew up. I'm not even sure what variety now, just that they were plump, rust feathered birds who laid a mean orange yolked egg - when they felt like it and weren't being chased across the field by a frisky cockerel. I spent hours drawing those birds, aiming to capture their essence as they scratched in the grass, stepped back for a look and then pecked a bit, before doing the whole thing again. They peered at me out of one eye, head cocked, ready to run should I do anything the slightest bit fox-like. Eventually I became part of the scenery and they resumed scratching and looking, clucking an audible record of findings that reached a sustained peak whenever an egg had been laid.
They had a little wooden house on stilts that they would shuffle into every night, safe from the fox, warm and cosy in hay filled nest boxes or snuggled on a perch like beans in a pod, fat and happy. I had the unenviable task of cleaning that hen house from time to time - shared as it was between the farm workers. Even done regularly the ammonia was pungent as those chickens couldn't wait for morning to relieve themselves. Chicken fleas would land on my bare arms, like slow London buses, confused by my lack of feathers, but not choosy (you didn't know that chickens had fleas? Believe me, for every animal in existance there is a flea that loves them the most).
When I finally ventured into the world to embark on a degree course, I already knew that chickens kept in cages were a bad thing, a very bad thing, something to tut aloud about in the supermarket and give disparaging looks to purchasers of caged eggs. Back then free range eggs cost a lot more than caged eggs, but I stretched my meagre student purse and forked over the extra money because my conscience demanded it. I was already heads up on many of my student colleagues, who held eggs in high esteem as one of the few cheap foods they actually knew how to cook, but didn't give a second thought to the welfare of the hens that laid them.
Then a funny thing happened, free range got cheaper. Everything was shouting about how free range it was and sprouting new caring labels, such as, 'Freedom Foods' guaranteed by the RSPCA and little red tractors with the comforting, 'Farm Assured' banner. I carried on buying free range eggs, happy that more of us could do it, sometimes even treating myself to organic eggs, because they too seemed miraculously cheaper. Ignorance was bliss.
Eventually a penny dropped for me as I realised that someone had to be bearing the cost of all this 'freedom to roam outdoors in daylight' - a basic right non? You bet it wasn't the supermarkets, and it probably wasn't the farmers, it was those chickens. Chickens housed in their thousands in great barns with little openings in the side through which the chickens were free to roam - if only they could make it over the thousands of other chickens who also fancied a bit of fresh air. Eventually most of those chickens gave up the idea of sun on their backs and milled around in the guano, just like the barn raised hens, whose eggs we scorn and tut over, believing that we are doing something right buying bargain free range for just a few pence more.
With eggs, you get what you pay for. If you buy them at the farm gate and can see your chickens scratching about for bugs, they might be of mixed size and not shining white, or uniformly brown, but they will be the real article - free range. If you buy them in the supermarket you have to be really clever because free range egg boxes have gorgeous pictures of hens foraging in lush green grass, regardless of how the eggs have been produced. The blurb might say that those birds have access to pasture or woodland, but how many actually got out there? You can't even tell by the colour of the egg itself because commercial feed often has elements in it that produce a more orange yolk.
Be an investigator and ask about the welfare of your eggs, ask what they were fed on and what happened to the hens after their first year - most commercial layers get the chop whereas they could lay for several years.
As I have said before in my post about omega fats - even if you don't care about the chickens, think about yourself. Eggs laid by chickens that eat mostly grass and bugs are more nutritious than those who don't. They might even save you buying some of those costly supplements or creams to make yourself look younger. Eggs produced on a small scale benefit the planet, because the chickens simply use what's there already, and put a bit of nutrition back each time they poop on the land. Whereas eggs produced on a large scale use power to heat and light, drugs to maintain flock health, engineered feed to, 'give the birds everything they need' (except grass - oh and a life) and finally a great big pit to shovel all the built up excrement into so that it doesn't burn the chickens socks off.
So maybe you could check out your local farmers market, or make a fortnightly trip to a farm shop instead of picking eggs up in the supermarket - Local Food Advisor is a good resource if you are looking for suppliers near you. At the very least choose organic if you do buy in the supermarket and support retailers like Waitrose who have the highest welfare standards of any supermarket in the UK. We all have a great protest vote to hand - our wallets - lets use it for good.
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