Scrambling to survive: Egg Farmers caught by new Euro rules
Does this look cruel to you?
Four hens to a small cage, standing all their lives. For many, battery hens became the first battle of the ethical food war. But for Pete Wood, who runs this small family egg farm in the Chew Valley, it was a case of ignorant townies missing the point.
“I think Free Range Eggs won’t last,” he tells me. “They’ll fall victim to disease, just like they did in the 60s. That’s how the cages came in; you put the birds in cages, the disease disappears overnight.”
A caged bird, in other words, is a safe bird. Safe from all but two of her pecking companions, safe from foxes, most of all safe from diseases like red mite which can run through a free range flock like wildfire.
“But but but but!” I can hear you shouting at your computer.
“They can’t flap!”
“They can’t scratch!”
“They have to stand on sloping chicken wire all their lives!”
It could be the cry of any hen lover, free range farmer or just casual fan of Aardman’s Chicken Run movie. In fact, these are the words of Joyce D’Silva, a campaigner with Compassion in World Farming.
It’s an argument that’s already run for 25 years, and shows no sign of stopping.
But Pete Wood, and thousands of egg farmers in the West Country and beyond, have lost.
Next year, his cages will be illegal. Across Europe, conventional cages will be banned from Jan 1 2012.
Not that this will see every bird running free across the Chew Valley or the Mendips or the Cotswolds. No, there are new cages, licenced by Europe. They have much more space, take 60 birds each, and have creature comforts.
Nestboxes, like this one in the picture.
Even plastic scratching areas.
But they’re expensive. Pete Wood has been quoted £250,000 for one henhouse. He has four, and his farm is small. One egg man I spoke to in North Dorset has shelled out £10m for his “enriched colony”.
So what? I hear you cry. It’s the price of progress, and when bearbaiting was outlawed, people lost work.
What really irks farmers like Mr Wood is the belief that other European nations won’t be as law-abiding as the UK. Already France and Spain have asked for a ‘derogation’ for two years. Animal welfare experts believe inspection will be light. And eggs from these hens will compete with Mr Wood’s eggs in the British market.
So far, it’s the usual story of British farmers having to follow new Euro laws to the letter, while their Mediterranean competitors shrug them off.
But there’s more to eggs than, erm, eggs.
A quarter of the eggs we ate last year, some 2.6 billion eggs, went into processing.
Cakes, meringues, sponges, mayonnaise, dips; think about it, eggs are everywhere.
Another third, over three billion eggs, were eaten in restaurants, cafes, and B&Bs. When you last stopped for an egg and bacon roll, or woke up to the full English on a weekend away, did you ask for free range?
If Mr Wood is right, the Great British Breakfast might soon feature Spanish eggs alongside the Danish bacon.
Understandably, many farmers are now ditching cages altogether. Down the road near Wincanton, I meet Dan Wood, who has decided to go 100% free range.
“That’s the way our market is going,” he explains to me, “more and more shops want local, free range eggs they can trust. So that’s what we’ll do; we’re businessmen in the end, and free range provides a clear market to work in.”
It’s a familiar story. Go upmarket, sell quality free range eggs to the local, independent shops and farmers can stay ahead. But if they try and play the global market, Britain’s increasing welfare standards may price them out altogether.