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TV probe farmer's 'career on line'

An Ulster farmer today told how he put his livelihood on the line after agreeing to appear on a television investigation into poultry production.

John Kirkpatrick, from Dungiven in Co Londonderry, told the Belfast Telegraph that he has been inundated with calls after he helped the TV chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall set up an experimental poultry unit comparing standard and free range systems. Their progress was aired this week as part of Hugh's Chicken Run, which ran for the past three nights on Channel 4.

The celebrity chef took the ambitious step after he was unable to gain access to any of the UK's intensive poultry units for filming. He decided to set up his own unit to mimic intensive conditions, but struggled to find anyone with the industry experience to establish a unit - until he met Mr Kirkpatrick, a former consultant at the now defunct Farm Fed business in Coleraine.

Some 2,300 chickens were reared under a standard system on one side of the unit, with 1,600 free range chickens living in an enriched environment on the other. The experiment revealed advantages and disadvantages to both regimes, with more health problems among the free range chickens.

But when Mr Kirkpatrick's industry contacts got wind that he was to be involved in filming with Hugh, well known for advocating 'freedom' farming, they were not impressed.

Mr Kirkpatrick said he had even received a call warning him he wouldn't work in the industry anywhere in the UK again.

He told the North West Telegraph: "I was warned it would jeopardise my future career in the poultry industry by taking this project on.

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"I had calls from people making some of the issues clearer, as if I didn't already know. Several people mentioned what I was doing and why. But at the end of the day I've been in the industry and I've seen what the poultry industry is capable of - good and bad.

"You're seen to be aiding somebody who is against factory farming and that is one of the things that is a bit difficult for people within the poultry industry to follow.

"I know the people personally and I can understand where they're coming from, but we've got to let the public see how the production of poultry meat in the UK is carried out."

Mr Kirkpatrick said he first met Mr Fearnley Whittingstall at a food meeting in Dorset where they discussed their concerns about the poultry industry.

"Our opinions were very, very similar, hence the reason I got involved," he said.

"I think this has been very beneficial - it has stimulated a debate in the industry. I've had all sorts of phone calls and discussions this week, some of it positive, some not so positive."

The Dungiven man said he is hoping the programme will spark major changes in the broiler chicken industry similar to what has already taken place in the egg industry. He did come under fire from farmers before the programme was aired but he insists that has now changed because of the emphasis on how the main supermarket chains are forcing farmers to adopt a low-margin system.

"I'm hoping that within the next four to five years, welfare chicken will account for something between 20-30% of chicken sold - whether organic or standard free range remains to be seen," he said.

"This has been a serious wake-up call and that can only be good for the industry. They are having to sit back and look at where they are going.

"We have definitely rattled the supermarkets somewhat. At the end of the day this is not a problem with farmers: this is a fundamental problem with supermarkets.

"They're not looking at animal welfare or ethical sourcing of poultry and they have to educate their customers in what they are buying.

"Farmers on the whole have welcomed what has been said. It's not against the farmers, it's a problem with the supermarkets - what they sell, how they sell it and how they obtain it. It's showing supermarkets in their true light and it's high time it happened.

"Now the industry is going to have to change and adapt to set new production methods but that is going to benefit the industry in the future. It's short term pain for long term gain."

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