John Widdowson

John Widdowson is not only a founding member of the British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association, he’s one of those people who is highly respected by all who know and work with him, he’s a shining example of what free range farming is all about and best of all, he genuinely enjoys seeing his hens enjoy free range living on his 80 acre farm in Devon.  I went along to interview John and ask him his views on free range farming.

1. What drew you specifically to free range production rather than another system John?

It was purely an economic decision, I had a limited amount of land and free range was one of the few things that was viable on a small acreage.  From the start it was very important to me that I did it right, I had a vision of lots of flocks outside ranging and consequently we kept flock sizes down to 4,000.

2. What’s your view of the enriched cage?

An enriched cage egg produced in the UK is better than an imported egg from a conventional cage.

3. You were responsible for the introduction of Sainsburys Woodland Egg, what made you come up with the idea to provide trees for your birds?

Dead simple; I wanted to see more hens come out of the house.  As an industry we had spent a lot of time getting conditions right inside the house – reducing stocking density, providing litter etc, and largely ignored what was going on outside.  What became immediately obvious was that hens don’t like wide open spaces, when you don’t see birds outside it’s because they don’t feel secure.  The concept has been a tremendous success and I’m really proud of introducing Woodland Eggs.

4. As a result of your groundbreaking concept are other producers encouraged to provide cover for their birds?

It is happening gradually, there are around 200 Woodland Egg producers and the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme is now insisting on more overhead shade for the birds.

5. There’s been quite a bit of criticism facing the free range sector, John, with people saying flock sizes are too large and the houses too crowded – what’s your view on this?

Economic pressure has forced intensification of free range which does give me some concern.  The industry must not lose sight of consumer expectations on what free range production is all about.

6. How do you react when you hear people say they can’t afford free range eggs, especially with the current credit crunch?

Yes, they are more expensive because high welfare does not come cheap, but if you price up what a typical egg based meal has cost it is still one of the best value meals you can put on the table.

7. Many producers would argue that disease is best controlled under the caged system, how do you answer critics of the free range system regarding disease control?

If you let birds out in the open, it is inevitable there is a greater risk of exposure to disease, but this can be controlled by good management and it is a price free range producers have to pay; it is not an excuse to put them back in a cage.

8. Do you think free range will continue expanding?

Definitely!  Simply because market demand is growing; two of the main driving forces have been Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who have really raised the profile of intensive farming which has had a knock on effect on the egg industry.  Also, the supermarkets are now promoting free range strongly and it has to be acknowledged they have played a massive part in the growth of free range, devoting more shelf space and giving free range a better position in store.

9. What are the biggest problems facing the industry today and what can British consumers do to help?

Rising costs of corn have made it a tough 12 months financially and this has resulted in retail prices having to be increased significantly.   We don’t know how much consumers are prepared to pay and there are concerns they will be less committed to supporting free range.  I certainly hope this does not happen because free range still offers tremendous value.  As for how consumers can help: despite there being an adequate supply of UK produced eggs we are still seeing imports, so look for British eggs and look for the Lion mark.

10. Do you have confidence in the future of the UK egg industry?

Yes. Thanks to campaigns such as the BHWT’s most recent hidden eggs campaign, there is greater awareness of the hidden egg and I think the work being done in this area by the BHWT is really important and can only encourage future growth in the free range sector.

11. And finally, John, how many birds enjoy free ranging on your farm?

We have five flocks of 4,000 hens and nothing gives me more pleasure than letting them out in the mornings to enjoy fresh air and beautiful Devon countryside.

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