Where to source the perfect chicken

There is a discreet reek of money and horse manure about the lanes into Lambourne. This is racing country. Stables, rides, thoroughbreds are all tucked away among the rolling acres of the Berkshire Downs. And chickens - chickens, cattle and sheep, to be exact, all as organic as can be, scratching, munching and meandering over Sheepdrove Organic Farm (01488 71659). Sheepdrove is the creation of erstwhile publishers Peter and Juliet Kindersley and their team, headed by Charles Maclean. Sheepdrove wasn't organic when they took it over; it has taken five years of hard work, setting about crop rotation to fix the nitrogen, dealing with blackweed and other botanical pests, and bringing the land into a natural state of health.

And healthy it looks: rich, glossy, not manicured, but well cared for, well used. The secret, it seems, is to keep animals and crops on the move: monoculture doesn't suit the land in the long term. So here, for the time being, are the chickens, all 6,000 of them; 1,000 per state-of-the- free-range-poultry-art mobile barn, a crowd of white-feather-dusters fossicking around in the grass surrounding their homes. These are Rosscobs, says Maclean, who wears the kind of moustache you last saw in that Kevin Costner film about Wyatt Earp. Rosscobs, he says, are the racehorses of the poultry world, bred to put on weight rapidly and for flavour.

The only trouble with them, however, is that they are nervy creatures, given to dying in numbers that can affect the farm's profitability. And, yes, Sheepdrove has to make money. There's no point in having a farm that is not run as a commercial enterprise; organic farming isn't just for posing. And he rattles off a battery of statistics, the general drift of which is to show that, while the yields and densities of crops and animals may be marginally lower and the pay-bill rather higher, the fact that he doesn't have to nuke the 1,850 acres, 130 suckler cows, 1,400 sheep and 6,000 chickens with a battery of chemicals means that he can achieve the same level of profitability as a conventional farm.

But having chickens die on him doesn't help, so he's changing to Shavers. By the time they have been nurtured the organic way, he says, there won't be a discernible difference in quality, and he won't have so many unwanted carcasses on his hands. They don't deal in eggs at Sheepdrove, so they buy in day-old chicks, at which stage they are not organic - there isn't yet the supply of organic chicks available in this country - but, with the Soil Association's blessing, they will become organic by the time they leave the farm, plucked, trussed and packed.

And here they are, 1,000 little fluffy balls hurtling around their nice warm, glassed-in room, just a few days old, just starting out on their 12 weeks of life - which, in case you're feeling sorry for them, is more than twice the life-expectancy of a broiler, whose span is a mere 35 days, and those spent in the most hideous of conditions. This lot are coddled. No debeaking here, or routine dosing with antibiotics. Organic feed, too.

In a few days, these little chaps will be moved on to a less warm room, to make way, after the room has been cleaned and left for a week to reduce any risk of disease, for the next 1,000 lunches. Then, over 21 days or so, the warmth is reduced to acclimatise them to the temperatures outside. They're funny things, hens, you see - they like being outside. In fact, the colder it is, the better they like it. Give them a warm summer's day, and they lie around in the shade. Give them a good fall of snow, and they dash outside like small children.

They are fairly carefully guarded against foxes by electric fences, but Maclean puts his faith more in what he calls the dominant-vixen system. Briefly, it goes like this. You let a vixen settle on your land. If she's happy, she'll keep her mate in order and scare off other foxes. All you have to do is bung her a few dead chickens every so often, so that she knows how well off she is. Not so long ago, Maclean was shooting half-a-dozen foxes a season - well, you would, if they kept going through your poultry shed like the plague. Now, he doesn't shoot any. That's called being in balance with nature.

So, the chickens will enjoy these carefree conditions for around 81 days, until they weigh in at around 1.8-2.5kg, and then, at night, when they are all warm and sleepy, they are rounded up, popped into individual boxes to minimise stress and injury, kept in the dark for the same reason and, before they know what's happening to them, dispatched, bled, plucked and eviscerated in an ultra-modern unit and then hung up to get a bit of flavour into them.

Actually, most of them aren't hung. Supermarkets aren't really in favour of too much flavour. More to the point, they think we aren't. But we should be. What is the point of a chicken, particularly an organic one, that doesn't taste of anything?

So, here I have one in front of me, a fine fellow of 2kg or more. The breast is a bit longer than what you usually see in the chiller cabinet, and less, well, bust-like. The legs are longer, too, with the well-muscled look of the outdoor athlete. And, oddly, it's bright yellow. Not corn-fed, or anything like that, says Maclean. It's the clover. That's what turns them that colour. All natural, you see. Just like the flavour.

Other notable suppliers

Somerset Organics 01749 870919;

Pipers Farms 01392 881380;

Ellel Free-Range Poultry 01524 751200;

The Farmyard Chicken Company 0870 9002900 for a Marchents catalogue;

Northfield Farm 01664 474271;

Mortons 01692 538227.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.


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