Sunday, January 13, 2008

I Chickened Out

Readers in Britain may be aware of the Chicken Out! Campaign fronted by (the very lovely) celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall against the unacceptable conditions that Britain’s chickens are reared in. If you haven’t got a Scooby what I’m talking about then take a look here.

Anyway, part of this campaign was televised on channel 4 not so long ago and I managed to catch an episode or two following Hugh and his campaign. And it reminded me of a Very Bad Day I’d had when I was younger.

The whole thing must have been so revolting that I’d pushed it to the recesses of my mind and left it there to rot with other bad memories because I hadn’t thought about it in years. Back there, in the cobwebbed corners of my memory hides one recollection of The Day I Worked on a Chicken Farm.

I must have been around 12 years old, and getting up to go to work for 5am was a novel experience (that I will never repeat). On arriving at the farm, I was introduced to the farmer, Hamish, a big gruff Scotsman who smelled of cigars and coffee and wet dog. The farmhands consisted of young adults, mainly teenagers who made vile jokes and didn’t appear to wash the dirt off their hands judging by the grubbiness of them. And of course I met the large barking dogs with fangs (one bit me, so he did!) before being shoved into what appeared to be a massive fridge.

I looked around me, taking in the scene; a cold, dirty room with a stench of something vulgar. Hanging on little clothes lines were several dead chickens, plucked and pink. Apparently my job was to grab the headless chicken and bag it so that it could go to wholesalers. Ok, fine by me, I thought. I’d helped out with the cooking in our household many a time (okay, okay, a slight exaggeration) and handling chicken meat before it was cooked didn’t alarm me (much).

The troublesome thing was that the clothes line contraption with chickens pegged on was going rather fast. With every chicken carcass I managed to un-peg, fit in a small transparent plastic bag and place in a box of other already packaged carcasses, four or five pink, naked chicken bodies had gone by me. Not only this, but I’d surprised myself by being more squeamish than I was expecting. Some of the chickens had bruises and blood and guts attached. As I lifted each heavy, cold body from the line I listened to the farmhand, Raymond, (a 14 year old ned who, at the time, I thought was a bit of a stud. I tried to flirt but the coldness in the fridge-room had made my nose run) explain to me how the animals were killed. Neck-breaking, dipping in water and electric volts were mentioned although I’m not sure if Raymond the ned could be trusted, especially when he mentioned that the birds scream and cry just as they are about to have their necks broken…

Eventually Hamish the farmer, decided this part of the job was not my forte and after slowing the entire chicken packaging process up I was pushed off into the direction of three large sheds to collect eggs.

Armed with a large trolley-type device and several cardboard egg holders, I cautiously opened the door to the chicken shed. If I had been a cartoon my hair would be blown behind me with the gust of noise coming from the inside of the hut. I closed the door again. Silence. I opened the door again. Squawking. Closed the door. The noise ceased completely. Opened the door. Seriously demented squawking. High-pitched terror-filled noises came from the rows and rows of boxes I could see before me. How odd. It was as though the chickens inside only made the effort to screech when they knew there was a human around to hear it.

Recoiling with the shock of the unbelievable noise, I pushed my trolley further inside and walked towards the boxes. They were not much bigger than a foot each way, these boxes, and were, in fact, cages. There was no way out for the hens. The front of the cage had largely woven chicken wire across it, at the bottom there was a small hole for any eggs laid to drop into and down to end up in a gutter where I would collect them. I leaned closer to the cage, looked at those hens; poor, tormented creatures. I counted them; One, two, three…four…five. Five in one cage. Again, I recoiled. I was horrified, the place was utterly vile.

Nevertheless, I took a deep breath and decided to get on with the job. I collected eggs from the first set of cages, tried to ignore the hens who stuck their necks through the wire. As I walked along the aisle I noticed that some chickens were actually dead. Live chickens shared cages with dead chickens. In the name of the wee green man. Other hens had craned their necks so far out that they could reach their eggs and had pecked them open and were, by the looks of things, eating them. Get me out of here!

The chicken shed was dark and warm to the point of being stuffy, filled with the overwhelming noise of the bird’s squawking. It didn’t feel right to me that these animals were locked up in a tiny cage in a tiny shed, kept away from sunshine and fresh air and all the nature that they were supposed to be walking around in and I had to swallow a fierce urge to run around the shed and release the latches of the cage doors. To stand back and watch as the creatures escape their little prison. I’d wave my arms above my head in hippy fashion and call ‘Be free little chickens, go! Be free!’

By the time I reached the end of the chicken shed and was walking between the dirty, cobwebbed stone wall and a row of cages, I saw a spider. And please don’t think I’m exaggerating here, people, but it really was the biggest spider you’d ever see. I mean it was probably the size of my entire head. I could actually see the pupils in her eyes. She was maybe even a tarantula. She was sitting on a massive, thick web, which went right across from the wall to the chicken boxes and if I wanted to get to the end of the aisle in order to collect all the eggs, I would have to walk past this monstrosity.

As if she was anticipating me for dinner, the spider moved one of her many legs (why so many?! There’s just no need for so many legs!) in a ‘come hither’ gesture.

‘Sack that!’ I cried, and I ran in the opposite direction, dragging the trolley of eggs along with me.

I had just about made it to the bottom of the aisle when I heard a bark and the big bad barking dog came into view. He started running at me, fast, so fast. My life flashed before me and I prepared myself to be mauled to death.

But hang on, he wasn’t after me. He was chasing something. Bloody hell there’s a freakin’ rat running towards you, my senses screamed at me, move, girl! Move! The rat was black with a thick pink tail. He was coming straight for me and so was the dog. I screamed involuntarily and made a run for it, tripped over the egg trolley, sending eggs crashing to the ground and fell to my knees into a pile of hay and, I guess, chicken shit.

The rat made its escape while the dog was distracted by me and my foolishness. He made his way towards me, gave a sniff and cocked his head to the side as if to say ‘You're a pure tube,’ and I could have sworn I saw him shake his head in disappointment.

I stood up, brushed myself off and checked for hidden cameras. I took in the mess I’d inadvertently caused in my haste. Yellow egg yolks were splattered everywhere, the shells cracked. The trolley was upturned, not a single egg had been saved.

What the feck am I going to do?!

I rubbed my tired eyes, took a breath, turned and ran.

Well, I didn’t want to be around when farmer Hamish found all his eggs smashed, did I?


sir jorge said...

i don't eat them more meat for sir jorge, but this is an awesome post, very enlightening.

Despina said...

Hahahaha what a great story!
But also, Jez and I pride ourselves on eating ethically bred meat from reputable traders. We love you Hugh FW! Excellent post :)

Jane said...

Can't say it's surprising you buried that memory toots, think I would've too.

Glad you're supporting Chicken Out!


PS you're v welcome for your award!

Ghosty said...

Good lord ... what a horrible time! I don't think I could even have put with as much as you did - I get really upset at animals in a bad way. All my farm time was spent with horses and dairy cows ... much tamer. :D

Zhu said...


Working at 12 years old? I thought English people (or Scottish...) let the kids go to school a bit longer! :D

ColbyPants said...

Chicken farms are disgusting things. In ohio they factory farm the poor bastards for eggs. They built one of them factories inMarion county where I used to live. 600,000 chickens, in cages barely big enough to turn around in. being force fed food and hormones and expected to lay eggs all the time. the horrible noise is only trumped by the smell. 600,000 chickens produce a really really large amount of shit, and the smell can be detected 5 miles off. I wont even get into the horseflys larger than humming birds that swarm the area. Its all friggin sick.


Princesse Ecossaise said...

Thanks for all the comments people, I have a lot to say in reply to you all, but I'm late in getting ready - I'm going to work with Zannie today woohoo! - so must dash. Will reply when I get home

love, love, love