Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: Crying fowl

The only thing he admits to ever drawing the line at consuming is a fried egg when the white is still runny

It was a somewhat perverse thing for an animal rights campaigner to do. The celebrity chef and food activist Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall built his own factory farm on television this week cramming 2,500 live chickens into a tiny shed for 39 days, depriving them of sleep for 23 hours a day to encourage them to eat non-stop, but not turning up the lights to the extent where the broiler beasts begin to cannibalise one another. The resulting sight and stench were so shocking that his fellow TV chef Jamie Oliver, when he visited, felt physically sick.

"If I really wanted people to understand how this [intensive factory farming] was done," the old Etonian campaigner said afterwards, "and indeed if I wanted to understand it fully myself, I had to raise at least one crop of standard birds according to industry regulations."

He could not face doing it on a standard chicken industry scale. "Normally there's between 20,000 and 40,000 birds in a shed. We scaled that down to 10 per cent." Even that unsettled him, he confessed, as he patrolled his chicken shed in a biosecurity suit, looking for weaklings to smash against a metal beam and flinging their twitching torsos into a black bin liner. At one point in the programme he broke down in tears, saying: "I really don't want to kill another bird this morning."

Channel 4, hungry as ever for controversy, hopes that Hugh's Chicken Run will have the kind of impact upon the nation's chicken-eating habits that Jamie's School Dinners did on school meals. Not everyone agrees. There has been, the tangle-haired presenter admits, "something of a backlash from people who didn't like to be made to feel guilty about the kind of food they were eating".

The meat industry, of course, was not happy. The chief executive of the British Poultry Council, Peter Bradnock, refused to appear on camera, saying: "It was very clear from all our discussions with the makers of the programme that there was a complete lack of objectivity when it came to the merits of indoor systems."

What particularly outraged chicken farmers was Fearnley-Whittingstall's claim that he had had to build his own factory farm because no poultry farmer would let him any closer than the end of the phone. "You've got chicken farms with barbed wire all around them, which is not necessary to keep the birds in," he said, in justification of his gimmick.

The claim went down particularly badly with the Devon poultry company Lloyd Maunder, which subsequently revealed that the chef had spent three days filming at farms, including an intensive unit, where the company's commercial director, Andrew Maunder, had engaged in a "robust debate" on camera with the campaigner. When the show aired this week, all that footage had been cut and no mention was made of Lloyd Maunder's contribution.

Channel 4 claimed that the sequence was cut because Lloyd Maunder also took part in another of its programmes, Jamie's Fowl Dinners, shown last night, and that the footage was held out of the Fearnley-Whittingstall programme "to avoid repetition between our respective programmes".

But then balance is not what you might expect from a passionate campaigner, which is what Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has been all his adult life. He began his career wanting to be a wildlife conservationist in Africa but was put off by the internecine squabbling between different conservation groups. His acquisition of useful skills such as how to marinate ostrich in Coca-Cola and warthog in Bovril might not have gone down too well with the eco-folk either, one assumes, as his lifelong love of cooking overcame his sense of wildlife preservation.

He had loved cooking from his childhood. Bred from a long line of clergymen and lawyers, he was born in London but he was brought up in Gloucestershire. His father, Robert, had downshifted to the country, which well suited Hugh's mother, the gardening writer Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall, author of An English Love Affair: One Thousand Years of Gardening.

She started her son on cookery at a very early age to keep him occupied on rainy days before he went off to prep school. The boy became relatively sophisticated quite quickly. "Once I could read, I would read my mother's recipe books," he once said. "I used to make these elaborate boxes of chocolates and sell them to my parents' friends."

He continued cooking for his friends at Eton and then at Oxford, where he read philosophy and psychology – and left with no idea how to make a living, hence the unsuccessful foray into Africa. On his return to England, aged 24, he met a friend who was waitressing at the River Café, then London's hottest restaurant, with a three-month waiting list for a table. He heard that the owners, Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray, were looking for kitchen staff, so he cooked them a lemon tart, and started work the next day. But when staff cuts came eight months later he got the sack. He lacked, he said, the "speed, skill, discipline or tidiness of my fellow chefs".

Since the River Café was known to be the most relaxed kitchen in London, the young Fearnley-Whittingstall suspected he would fare even worse in the knife-throwing, foul-mouthed Michelin-starred hothouse kitchens of the capital. So he turned to writing about food for the magazine Punch and later The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent on Sunday and The Observer. His first cookbook, based on the produce available in British markets, was called Cuisine Bon Marché. It led to his first TV appearance and then his first Channel 4 series, A Cook on the Wild Side, in which he drove around Britain cooking anything he found in the hedgerows or dead on the road. It earned him the nickname of Hugh Fearlessly-Eatsitall. The only thing he admits to ever drawing the line at consuming is a fried egg when the white is still runny on top.

His most controversial dish came during a show called TV Dinners during which he fried a human placenta, with shallots and garlic, flambéed and puréed it, and served it on focaccia, for the family and friends of a newborn bay named Indi-Mo Krebbs. The baby's father had 17 helpings but the other guests were less enthusiastic.

So was Kevin McNamara, the Labour MP for Hull, who was one of a number of viewers who complained to the Broadcasting Standards Commission. The watchdog accepted it was not illegal to cook or consume afterbirth – and indeed acknowledged that placenta is considered highly nutritious, and that mothers in many countries, though not Hull, are encouraged to eat their own – but they ruled that the stunt was tasteless. They obviously missed the garlic and shallots.

For a long time that overshadowed everything Fearnley-Whittingstall did, but eventually he found his TV niche. Years in London as a journalist left him with a yen to get back to the countryside. He persuaded Channel 4 to let him do a series on the return of the rural native. In 1997 he moved permanently into his holiday home in Dorset to keep pigs and chickens, growing and rearing everything he ate in a self-sustaining back-to-nature good life.

His philosophy of organic husbandry became the subject of three successful TV series, Escape to River Cottage, Return to River Cottage and River Cottage Forever. On the basis of it, he and his French wife, Marie, and sons Oscar and Freddy, bought a farm and set up a business with a team which runs courses based on their grow-your-own philosophy.

"I think we've tapped into a rich rural fantasy," he admits, though he hopes viewers get to make some reality out of it too – even if it is merely coming to the realisation that the products clingfilmed on the supermarket shelves have had an earthier, and messier, provenance. His fans write on websites things such as "I would live the author's life in a heartbeat", but the Fearnley-Whittingstall lifestyle remains for most of them a townie's pipe dream. Quite right too. For as he himself admits: "It would be hypocritical of me to pretend that I'm financially dependent on a smallholding. I get paid by Channel 4 and make decent money from my books."

They are books that touch the heart of a society which yearns for a life of the soil that it is not prepared to make the sacrifices to achieve. Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage Year celebrates a seasonality in food about which most consumers would complain if it was inflicted on them by their local supermarket. His River Cottage Meat Book encourages readers to rear and butcher their own animals – good aspirational reading as they tuck into their Marks & Spencer ready meals.

Still, even the most deracinated of us can make sure that our supermarket chicken is a superior product. More than 95 per cent of the chicken eaten in the UK has been intensively farmed. A revolution has begun in British egg production – 27 per cent of eggs now come from free range farms – and Fearnley-Whittingstall hopes he can now bring the same change to the production of Britain's favourite meat. "Barely two or three per cent of all the chicken we eat in this country is free range," he says. "It should be 30 or 40 per cent, as it is in France." Farmers, he insists, will be happy to move to less intensive methods if the supermarkets and the fast-food outlets stop demanding such low prices from them.

But to do that requires a change in attitude on behalf of consumers. Cynics will say Fearnley-Whittingstall has no hope in the face of two-for-a-fiver bargain chickens. But his campaigning has ensured that in his local town, Axminster, 60 per cent of the chickens sold last week were free range. Today Axminster, tomorrow the world!

A Life in Brief

Born Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, 14 January 1965, London.

FAMILY Two children, Oscar and Freddy, with his wife Marie.

EDUCATION Attended Eton College, then read philosophy and psychology at St Peter's College, Oxford.

CAREER Worked on conservation in Africa, then as a sous-chef at the River Café. Made redundant and began work as a food writer and TV presenter. In 1997 moved to a smallholding in Dorset to lead the self-sufficient life documented in the River Cottage programmes. In 2003, began a new project of converting an old dairy barn where he now offers classes and meals using only his own produce. Also created Hugh's Chicken Run.

HE SAYS "Some people are now of the opinion that I have the perfect job. On all the available evidence, their opinion seems well founded."

THEY SAY "Hugh's breezy canter through the hurdles of pigs, sheep and cows makes light of the psychotic sow, or the ram intent on flattening any human that comes within range." Tom Jaine, editor of The Good Food Guide.

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