Shoppers frustrated as free-range birds fly off shelves

Across the country, the words may vary but the message is the same: "Sorry, we've sold out of free-range chicken. We're doing our best to buy some more."

If the nation's grocers had predicted such a change of buying habits, they would have ordered more stock.

As it is, supermarket shelves across the country have been left empty as a result of public's new-found desire to do the right thing. Hundreds of shoppers, frustrated at their inability to find the higher quality birds, have emailed, written or phoned animal rights campaigners to record, and complain about, the shortages. They have taken photo after photo of empty shelves, sometimes with a message from the supermarket.

Visitors to Tesco in Andover on 13 February, for example, went away empty-handed. "Sorry we've been short of free-range chicken since demand rose following Channel 4's farming documentaries," said the note. "We're working hard with our farmers to fix this by early march. Willow Farm is our higher welfare alternative to standard chicken."

In Hastings, Sainsbury's shoppers also received an apology from the store. "Due to higher demand for these chickens we are experiencing a shortage. Everything is being done to resolve this as soon as possible and we apologise for any inconvenience."

A spokeswoman for Compassion in World Farming said: "A lot of people are up in arms about the fact that they had been to their local supermarket and cannot buy a free-range or organic option."

At River Cottage HQ, the administrative hub of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's empire, there was a similar story. "A lot of people are saying they went to their local supermarket and it sold out of organic chicken," said a spokeswoman, Lucy Brazier. "We have been inundated. We were overwhelmed by the responses."

Sainsbury's poultry team agreed with the picture of booming free-range sales: "Sales are up 50 per cent year on year so it means we are selling more free-range than we have ever sold. It's also fair to say sales would have been much greater if we had stock to meet demand."

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