Leigh Fowler, the owner of Fowler’s Poultry, produces top-quality free-range eggs on a farm in Kings Cliffe. His farm has sold eggs at the Stamford Farmers’ market for 20 years without missing a single event, and he is a regular at Oundle’s monthly Farmers’ Market.
“I’ve always kept chickens. I love looking after chickens. I approach it probably from a softer point of view than a businessman who is just doing it to earn money,” he says.
With a surname like “Fowler” he said having an egg farm business was meant to be.
Mr Fowler’s passion for keeping hens started at the age of eight, when he bid for a shoebox containing 40-day old chicks on a family holiday to Great Yarmouth. He kept his own hens and after leaving school, he studied poultry production and management at the Royal Agricultural College in Ayr.
He then secured a job with Bernard Matthews, a company said to be the home of “bootiful” food and best known for producing turkey meat products, but he still dreamed of having his own free range egg farm. In 1997, he purchased a grassy meadow in Kings Cliffe. Soon, his free range laying flock was up and running, and he moved onto the site with a caravan, which became his home for seven years before he was able to build a stone farm house. His partner, Becky, and their four children help out on the farm, and often join him at the Oundle market.
For Mr Fowler, the core of his business is about the care of his hens, and the quality product that he produces. For him, there are no compromises to the designation of “free range”.
Free range eggs are produced from poultry that are allowed to roam freely outdoors during daylight hours for at least part of the day, rather than being confined in an enclosure for 24 hours a day. On many farms, the outdoors ranging area is fenced, however free range systems usually offer the opportunity for extensive movement and sunlight that is otherwise prevented by indoor housing systems. According to the RSPCA, legal requirements for free-range eggs ensure a minimum amount of space and litter for the hens: no more than nine hens per square metre, 10cm of feeder per bird and one drinker per 10 birds.
For large producers, a compact system has birds on multiple tiers, rather than on one level, increasing the bird population while maintaining minimum standards for free-range classification. This puts more pressure on the grazing area outside the shed because of the increased traffic, but it is still free range, as birds are allowed to go outside during the day.
Mr Fowler’s chickens are reared on one level, with food and water all accessible on the same level and enjoy a generously-sized well-maintained grazing area. “We have used a breed called Lohmann Brown for the last 20 years and then changed two years ago to a breed called Bovan which we are delighted with and ordering some more for later in the year,” he said.
He believes that the secret to producing a quality egg is to provide the hen with the best food possible, well above their requirements, and to sell those eggs as soon as possible, so that customers can enjoy a truly fresh egg. “Whatever the hen eats, comes through in the quality of the egg. You need to buy good food and you need to sell the eggs quickly, so they stand up nicely and look lovely and fresh,” he said.
There is no difference between white and brown eggs as it is just the shell colour, which depends upon the breed of hen laying the egg; the actual egg inside is the great source of nutrition, though it can be hard to tell what a particularly “healthy” type of egg would be. “Some companies put additives into the chicken food such as omega 3 and market their eggs as being high in such ingredients. I personally believe that freshness, good quality food and good quality of life for the hen are the most important things when producing eggs,” he says.
Mr Fowler does not rear the hens himself as this is undertaken by specialist rearing farms who follow a strict vaccination programme to ensure the birds are as healthy as possible and the eggs are as safe as possible.
A laying hen is normally moved at 15 weeks of age from the rearing farm to the laying farm to settle down for around 3-4 weeks before starting to lay their eggs.
Over the course of a year-long lay cycle, they will start with smaller sized eggs to begin with, known as pullet eggs, and gradually produce larger eggs. At that point the birds need to rest, and are ready to moult, which takes about five weeks. Farmers cannot afford to keep unproductive hens, which are normally killed for meat.
However, when Mr Fowler’s hens reach retirement, all of them are re-homed, instead of being sold for meat.
“When I go in every day, ‘it’s morning girls’. I chitchat away to them. I don’t feel bad that they’re then going to be sent to slaughter. We’ll find homes for them at the end of each laying cycle,” he said.
“You do what you believe in, I guess,” he said. “I went to university to study poultry and I came out knowing how I wanted to do it.”