The best UK chicken producers

Updated on 08 September 2011 | 0 Comments

An intensively farmed chicken is simply not as tasty as a carefully reared bird. Yes, you'll pay a bit more, but it's worth it for the flavour. We list five of the best UK producers of properly reared chicken.

An intensively farmed chicken is a cheap chicken, it’s true. But where the bird pays the price of poor treatment to lower our shopping bills, we pay the price in taste. Unless, that is, we stick to RSPCA Freedom Food, free-range and organic birds.

These all ensure better living conditions for the bird, and more flavour in the meat for us. There are many UK chicken producers utterly committed to raising healthy birds, which taste fantastic. We list five of the best.

Higher Hacknell Farm, Devon

Highly commended for its chickens at the Soil Association Organic Food Awards in 2009, Higher Hacknell in Devon is a totally organic farm.

Co-owner Jo Budden says the key to their quality chicken is caring for the birds. ‘It was inbuilt strongly within us that welfare was really important’, she says. ‘I wouldn’t want to sit down to a meal knowing that the bird has not had a very good life. I just wouldn’t eat it.’

The chickens at Higher Hacknell are reared in small groups of 250 birds, a quarter the size of the maximum allowed by Soil Association standards. They graze outdoors and are only shut indoors at night to protect from predators. Eating grass and foraging in the open air gives the skin that characteristic yellow tinge you usually see on corn-fed poulets de Bresse.

They also live for almost twice as long as intensively farmed chickens, which allows much better flavour to develop, which is why Higher Hacknell is recommended by chefs like Rick Stein.  

Madgett’s Farm, Monmouthshire

A regular on UK TV cooking shows like Market Kitchen, and a favourite of top local restaurants, Madgett’s Farm raises free-range White Cobb chickens.

Owner Elaine Williams says she aims to raise traditional birds with a good shape and flavour. ‘The birds are fed a good quality food, made up especially to assure good growth and some marbling through the meat,’ she says.

The birds are slow growing, and are not given any growth promoters. They are processed as late as 20 weeks, which ensures a very different flavour to supermarket chicken.

‘It’s nice to get a chicken that actually tastes like a chicken,’ says Williams.

Providence Farm, Devon

At Providence Farm, they don’t just raise chickens, they talk to them too. Co-owner Pammy is the resident ‘chicken whisperer’ at River Cottage, and also runs courses on keeping chickens at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons.

When she is not teaching, Pammy and her husband Ritchie raise organic chickens, with less than 150 birds per house. This keeps the birds healthy and allows them to form a sensible social order, reducing stress levels and avoiding the need to use conventional medicines.

However, Riggs says this is the easy bit. ‘At some point the chicken you eat has to be killed, plucked and gutted,’ she says. ‘Approaching that part of the process humanely and with dignity is the extra something that makes our birds win prizes.’ Providence birds are dry plucked, so the flesh doesn’t take on excess water, and hung to develop flavour. And it works.

Packington Poultry, Staffordshire

Moving away from an emphasis on quick results and low costs, Packington Poulty concentrates on rearing chickens with care and attention. Putting the welfare of the birds first, the chickens are fed high quality maize and omega3 enriched corn. This means healthier and stronger birds, packed with flavour.

‘My aim as a producer is fairly simple, to rear fantastic chickens for customers who appreciate the way in which they are reared,’ says owner Alec Mercer, ‘and also the taste and quality of the birds.’

The chickens have lots of room to roam during the day, and strategically placed perches and shelters tempt them away from their pens to get even more exercise. This, plus the natural food sources in the pasture, contribute to great flavour, and they use no additives, antibiotics or growth promoter. 

Traditional Norfolk Poultry, Norfolk

The largest-scale producer on the list, and the first UK company to farm organic birds on a commercial scale, Traditional Norfolk Poultry has flocks at many different farms across Norfolk. It grows birds that are reared to RSPCA Freedom Food, free-range and organic standards.

But the overriding ethos across all of its flocks is the same – developing great flavour through slow growth and keeping high standards of welfare, so the birds are healthy and happy.

‘Our belief is that if you grow the birds in a stress free environment, and feed it on the best feed, the flavour and succulence will be ‘built in’,' says director Mark Gorton.

Alongside Packington (above), TNP was also recognised for its commitment to high welfare standards with an award from Compassion in World Farming in 2011. The meadows that the birds pasture in are sown with herbs as well as grass, which have therapeutic benefits for the birds and also perfume the meat for the consumer.

How to recognise supermarket symbols

If you’re trying to do your bit for chickens everywhere and buy responsibly in the supermarket, these are the official badges to look out for:

Organic Farmers & Growers - Proves that animals have had outdoor access and higher welfare. For chickens, this includes a longer life span.

The Soil Association Organic Standard – denotes the highest welfare levels in the UK, including smaller flock sizes for chickens.

Freedom Food - This is the RSPCA label that assures that chickens are raised in conditions that meet the minimum standards prescribed by the animal protection society. For chickens, this means greater space and bedding material for indoor reared chickens.

Free-range – Animals have access to the outdoors for at least part of their lives. For chickens and broilers (meat chickens), there are EU regulations which must be met to be able to label food as free-range, so it means better conditions for the chickens.

Beware of Assured Food Standards with the Red Tractor logo - this is supposed to promote good farming practices but can mean very little. Also the Lion Mark offers no guarantees about the conditions in which laying hens are kept.

Finally, if you'd prefer to avoid the supermarkets completely, why not order your chicken online from suppliers such as Westin Gourmet, Well Hung Meat, Douglas Willis and Donald Russell? Find out more in The best online butchers.

Also worth your attention:

The best welsh lamb producers

The best pork producers

Five simple chicken dishes


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