Review: Hugh’s Chicken Run

Hugh's Chicken Run

In the UK: Monday 7th to Wednesday 9th, 9pm, Channel 4

January has seen the start of Channel 4’s Big Food Fight. It’s been heavily advertised and the schedules are crammed with programmes about food. What it’s actually about is slightly less obvious. We’ve a live cookathon with Gordon Ramsay to look forward to a week tomorrow, but this week’s offerings concern what happens to our food before we eat it. What’s the link? I don’t know.

Chicken appears to be the big concern, though. Apparently, chickens aren’t treated very well before they get killed then eaten, except for some strange variety called “free range” that get treated slightly better – before being killed then eaten. Who knew?

ABC1s, that’s who. C2s, Ds, et al? All clueless dimwits apparently (oops. Veering into Peter De Lane territory now). Channel 4, of course, had great success with its Jamie’s School Dinners campaign so for ‘the dimwits’, there’s Jamie’s Fowl Dinners on Friday to look forward to – I think he’s just going to stick a chicken in Black and Decker Workmate or something.

But only the really middle class, well off or well meaning can afford to spend three consecutive nights watching hour-long Channel 4 documentaries. So to give the ABC1s a chance to sneer at the prols for being so uneducated and crass, which was surely the real point of Jamie’s School Dinners, there’s been three hours of Hugh’s Chicken Run, in which Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tries to turn the town of Axminster into the first free-range town in Britain while simultaneously convincing all the supermarkets to only stock free-range chicken.

How did he try to do that? By setting up his own intensive chicken farm.

The basic plot of Hugh’s Chicken Run goes something like this. Hugh F-W thinks the way chickens are treated by standard farming practices is awful. If only they were treated as well as the ones at River Cottage (products from which are now on sale at his shop in Axminster, hint, hint). So he tries to find a farmer willing to let him film in one of the intensive chicken houses. He can’t. He also can’t get the supermarkets to have an on-air meet with him.

Naturally, being thoroughly committed to chicken welfare, he therefore decides to buy 2,000 or so standard chicks and bung them in an intensive chicken farm which he will build according to industry standards. At the same time, he’ll also rear another 1,000 or so according to free-range standards, while simultaneously getting a load of Axminster estate dwellers to rear their own chickens on an allotment so they understand the importance of being slightly nicer to chickens before hanging them upside down, giving them an electric shock then cutting their neck and letting them bleed to death so they can be eaten.

Over the three episodes, we then follow Hugh as he learns the ways of the intensive farmer: how to snap the necks of chicks that are a bit smaller than the others; how to stop them from eating each other because they’ve gone mad; how to stop the chickens getting ammonia burns from their faeces-laden litter. And so on. We also get to see how the allotment crowd fare with their chickens, as they slowly become attached to their new pets… no, mustn’t think of them as pets or else it’ll be hard to kill them.

The final episode revealed whether Hugh managed to convince both the allotment crowd, the town of Axminster and indeed the world, including supermarkets and politicians, that intensive chicken farming practices are bad and free-range is good.

With the exception of one allotment worker called Hayley, a singularly flinty woman who repeated like a mantra “I’m a single parent with two children and this is what I can afford” at every possible opportunity, the allotment crowd have now all vowed to go free-range. Axminister isn’t so readily convinced and think for some reason it’s all just a con by Hugh to get everyone to eat his River Cottage chicken (£18 a go, the rumours circulate). Certainly, despite the same message being given to Hugh at every possible opportunity by everyone on a salary of £12k or less, he seems unconvinced: it’s just 50p a head extra per meal, he suggests, but the poorer locals are having none of it.

He seems to have a little more success with the supermarkets. Although, Waitrose et al say they’re all going to take their cues from their customers, Sainsbury’s is the only one that seems to changes its practices seriously. Whether every branch will have the TV screens showing the different rearing conditions of the different types of Sainsbury’s chickens, I don’t know: I’ve certainly not seen ones in the lovely SE London branches I’ve been frequenting. I suspect they’re going to wait to see how the public react to Hugh’s campaign.

On the whole, well-made and well-intentioned as it was. it’s hard not to think of the show as preaching to the converted. Hugh F-W, unlike Jamie Oliver, has never been a big name with anyone outside the well-off middle classes who’ll probably already buy “Taste the Difference” or “Tesco’s Finest” every time. So only those worried about chickens already are likely to be watching: after all, how many people will watch a programme that should be subtitled “What you’re doing is wrong” of their own volition.

I suspect it might take a while for this particular campaign to take off. The self-interest of not having your kids become obese or live shorter lives and the obvious requirement to do or sacrifice nothing except slag off schools and look down at Turkey Twizzler addicts in the Jamie’s School Dinners campaign meant it could gain widespread support and politicians could look good for doing very little. Trying to convince the Great British Public to spend more money when they go to the shops, just so some chickens can have better lives before they get killed after a couple of months, even if it does supposedly taste better: that’s a far more selfless and tricky argument to put forward. Few politicians are going to endorse further regulation of supermarkets if it only results in food becoming more expensive for voters and fewer contributions to their campaigns. The fact it’s on Channel 4, rather than E4, ITV1 or BBC1, means that the message is less than likely to get to the people it wants to reach, too.

Since, thanks to Gordon Ramsay, I’m now vegetarian, clearly TV campaigns can change people’s eating behaviour. Seeing Hugh breaking down after having to kill another chicken and seeing the conditions in his mini-death house might well convince someone tuning in that intensive or even any kind of chicken farming is bad.

But I think Hugh’s argument is a little more emotional than logical (I’m trying to avoid vegetarian lecturing here, honestly): are we really supposed only to be worried about inflicting poor living conditions and pain on chickens, not killing them off? Pain is worse than death? It’s like an “anti-Rumsfeld doctrine” or being worried about whether the injection you give a death row prisoner causes them pain when they’re dying or not. Once you’ve accepted that it’s okay to raise chickens simply so you can eat them, surely what you do to them while they’re alive is neither here nor there?

As one of the Axminster locals puts it, “if you’re so worried about chickens, why don’t you become vegetarian?” It’s hard not to think that Hugh’s campaign is in far more of a grey area than “don’t let schools feed your kids crap or else they’ll get fat and die” was. Still, tiny acorns and all that.




  • It’s a tough one and since I only eat a ‘mainly’ rather than exclusively vegetarian diet, I’m perhaps not best placed to answer this.
    For sure, the programme is preaching to the converted and I think there would be a better argument to be made in reviewing the eating of meat full-stop. But that would make it even harder to sell to an audience – even a C4 one – than even this attempt. thing is that one or two remarks aside, HFW is a pro-“eating all Gods provisions” kinda guy: not just plants but meat/fish etc. So he’s unlikely to head off to ‘make the audience vegetarian’. Meh. i just don’t know
    your review is grand though. Esp about Jamie’s School Dinners. I have come to hate that programme.

  • MediumRob

    “HFW is a pro-“eating all Gods provisions” kinda guy”
    Which is part of the problem. Hugh obviously doesn’t want to change his chosen lifestyle – he likes meat so he’s going to eat it and he can afford not just to buy free-range but to farm it as well. It’s when he’s trying to make an argument in favour of people changing their lifestyles that this becomes an issue. And essentially the argument is a bit slippery if you don’t follow it to its logical conclusion: “Being mean to animals is bad. Being bad is bad. Therefore don’t be mean to animals. Killing things is mean. Therefore don’t kill things” is pretty clear cut. “Don’t be mean to animals until you kill them” is less clear cut.
    On the other hand, people aren’t going to listen to vegetarians so maybe Hugh is the best to make the argument. Apart from Gordon Ramsay.

  • “Once you’ve accepted that it’s okay to raise chickens simply so you can eat them, surely what you do to them while they’re alive is neither here nor there?”
    Oh, dear. I can’t understate how much I disagree. Is pain worse than death? When it’s inflicted over a long period of time, when there’s no escape from it, when it actually drives the animal insane, then yes, it clearly is. That’s why beloved family pets are put down painlessly rather than letting them suffer.
    But killing animals for food isn’t the same as putting down a pet. Yes, you can argue that raising an animal purely to take its life is inherently immoral and repugnant and therefore you shouldn’t eat meat. But I do eat meat. H F-W’s philosophy on this seems sound and civilised to me: I can’t quite remember the exact quote, but basically he said that every living thing will have some sort of life, and some sort of death, and then get eaten, whether by predators or microorganisms. And if we’re going to kill animals for food, then we have a responsibility to ensure that their life and death are as free from pain and stress as possible. Torturing animals, whether through their living conditions or the method of slaughter, is not civilised. Yes, that is more emotional than logical; morality has nothing to do with logic.
    As I don’t raise animals or slaughter them myself, I have to rely on the information in the shops to chose what I buy. Yes, I do buy organic free-range, and yes, that does mean that chicken is expensive. But the last chicken I bought, I got four meals from, and I still have a litre of stock in the freezer.

  • “Is pain worse than death? When it’s inflicted over a long period of time, when there’s no escape from it, when it actually drives the animal insane, then yes, it clearly is. That’s why beloved family pets are put down painlessly rather than letting them suffer.”
    I’m hoping, Stu, that you’re not the one deliberately inflicting the pain on the family pet or arguing that the pain inflicted by the intensive farmers is unavoidable (and are you pro-euthanasia as well?). My point is (in case it needs to be clearer) that if you’re deliberately setting out to kill a healthy animal before the end of its natural lifespan, purely for your own eminently avoidable purposes (if we were purely carnivorous, it would be a different story), why are you necessarily concerned about the lifestyle of the condemned animal? It’s going to die, you’re going to kill it, you don’t need to: are you simply trying to reduce the number of bad things you’re doing to a manageable number by making sure it’s relatively well off during its short life that’s intended purely for your pleasure?
    I’m not so mentally vegetarian now that I insist that everyone give up eating meat – my wife eats meat still – and I can see that there are alternative points of view so I say live and let live. I’m just finding it hard to see the internal intellectual consistency of Hugh’s particular argument. Emotionally, though, there’s mileage in the argument for being as nice as you can be to animals, even if many people (including me for 34 years or so) would prefer to overlook the killing part at the end of the process and I’m not going to knock anyone who signs up to that particular way of life.

  • “and are you pro-euthanasia as well?”
    Yes. Watched a relative die over a period of several years with an agonising lack of dignity.
    “the pain inflicted by the intensive farmers is unavoidable”
    It certainly seems to be inherent to the method of keeping the animal.
    “are you simply trying to reduce the number of bad things you’re doing to a manageable number by making sure it’s relatively well off during its short life that’s intended purely for your pleasure?”
    Well, it’s not purely for my pleasure; it’s also for my sustenance. But yes, that is pretty much what I’m doing, although you’re coming at this from a point of view that raising an animal in order to kill it is inherently “a bad thing”. I don’t necessarily consider killing the animal to be a bad thing. Killing the animal in a way that makes it suffer is a bad thing; just as raising it in a way that makes it suffer is a bad thing. I don’t eat foie gras or white veal, either.
    There’s also the fact that meat from humanely-raised animals definitely tastes better.
    Out of interest: do you eat dairy produce? And if so, are you fussed about the conditions the cows are kept under?

  • MediumRob

    “I don’t necessarily consider killing the animal to be a bad thing”
    What’s the intellectual rationalisation for that? Not to have an argument, just so that Hugh can use it.
    “Out of interest: do you eat dairy produce? And if so, are you fussed about the conditions the cows are kept under?”
    I do (although I dislike cheese), and now you’ve made me think about it, I am. One of my cousins is a dairy farmer so I’ll just ask him to send the milk to me directly from now on.

  • Apologies for late response. For some reason, although I could see the reply on the sidebar, I couldn’t see the whole thing on the blog until late this morning.
    I don’t think you can rationalise it entirely intellectually, because emotion has to come into it. For me, it’s all about drawing lines.
    Everyone takes animal life. You do it every day. Every time you wash, you kill bacteria. So that’s all right. So is it not OK to kill something a bit more complex than a microorganism? Yes, it is; you wouldn’t hesitate to kill an insect if you had a cockroach infestation, or a wasp’s nest in your loft. So how about vertebrates? Are you OK killing vermin, like mice and rats? Most people are, a few aren’t.
    The thing is, consciousness and sentience are also a sliding scale. I don’t object to the very concept of eating meat, and animals aren’t conscious or sentient in any human sense. A fish doesn’t have higher brain functions. Neither does a chicken, or a sheep. It’s not snuffing out a sentient life. Humans are biologically adapted to eat meat — yes, among other things, but we are adapted to eat meat, as are all the great apes. We derive vital nutrients from it, far more efficiently than we can from other sources.
    So, how do we behave when we eat meat? Well, domesticating animals and raising them for meat isn’t wrong in my book — it frees us from the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle (though I know some people in the States who get almost all their meat from hunting). The animals that we eat don’t have sentience as we have, but they do have instinct and they can feel pain. Causing suffering is wrong. I’d say breeding an animal so that it’s unable to carry out its normal functions is also wrong (pedigree dog breeders, I’m looking at you here). So I’d say that we have a responsibility to those animals that we breed for meat to keep them in conditions where they don’t feel undue pain; where they can live a life as close as possible to their natural state (not far off at all, in the case of sheep), and when it comes to the end of their life, to ensure that they know as little about it as possible.
    Other people’s opinions will differ, and that’s fine; everyone draws the line in a different place. It’s hard to define how you could be cruel to a fish, though keeping them in cramped conditions so that they don’t have enough oxygen certainly looks nasty (so I don’t eat farmed freshwater trout), and dosing salmon up with antibiotics and making them vulnerable to lice infections, and not giving them enough current to swim in properly, also can’t be good in my book (so I’m careful where I buy my salmon from).
    I admit that slaughtering animals isn’t a job I’d want to do, but there are lots of jobs I wouldn’t want to do through squeamishness. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want anyone else to do them either.
    Other people have different lines: nothing with a face, nothing fluffy, wherever. It’s a personal decision. I’m uneasy about pigs, because it seems to me that they have a level of intelligence above cows or sheep (and probably higher than dogs) — if it were proven that they have some level of consciousness, I wouldn’t eat them anymore.
    So, not intellectual per se, but certainly rational (I hope).
    Blimey, that’s a bit deep for a blog about telly, isn’t it? Wouldn’t get that on a post about Doctor Who.

  • “For some reason, although I could see the reply on the sidebar, I couldn’t see the whole thing on the blog until late this morning.”
    Because either Movable Type 4 or LivingDot are cock. I’m inclined to believe it’s MT4. I had to republish the entry because it had failed to republish after I left the comment, even though the index pages rebuilt. Bugs reported but SixApart is wondering who’s to blame. Actually, they’re not even sure what their own product is supposed to do….
    “Yes, it is; you wouldn’t hesitate to kill an insect if you had a cockroach infestation, or a wasp’s nest in your loft.”
    Wouldn’t I? Speak for yourself, matey! You know that ad for tissues with the Buddhist monk who wanders around putting insects back on leaves, etc, and feels guilty when he realised he’s blown his nose on an anti-viral tissue? That’s me that is.
    In your scenarios, I would try my hardest to relocate the mini-beasts in question first. Only if they started doing bad things to me would I then fall back to the self-defence argument and start killing them off, assuming I couldn’t do anything else, and even then I’d feel guilty about it.
    That aside, though, good argument and I won’t quibble with it (even though I could 😉 ) since that’s not really the aim of the post, except to point out your US friends are going to get liver damage if they keep that up. Not sure how easily deployable it is in a national campaign though. Needs a slogan really.
    “Blimey, that’s a bit deep for a blog about telly, isn’t it? Wouldn’t get that on a post about Doctor Who.”
    This blog is inherently deep, I think you’ll find. You might get something as deep as your argument on an Old Who entry, but not a New Who one. Tee hee.

  • Iko

    I’m the type of person that eats, well, essentially everything. I do think, though, that even though there is an eventuality to what I eat (the animals are slaughtered at the end), I do think that well-kept animals are much more flavorful and healthier. So there is a rather selfish reason to want to be involved in that animal’s welfare while they are alive.
    Plus, animals that are cared for well have less of an environmental impact. I’m the type of person that buys locally as much as possible, again for the better flavor, and try to buy from companies with sustainable or good practices.

  • Kira

    I’ve only stumbled upon this blog now, but I just want to say that yes, pigs are smarter than dogs. They are the third smartest land mammal after humans and apes. So I don’t know if that will make people think twice about eating them.
    As for my opinions, I’m in the process of being a vegetarian, so I think that speaks for itself. I mostly agree with Stu.