Richard D North

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My adopted county, Herefordshire, is the chicken-capital of Britain. Many of our bright farmers are under contract to Sun Valley to produce poultry for McDonalds and, indeed, half the supermarkets in the country. A couple of friends of mine, good stockmen, have approximately 60,000 of the birds at any one time. Their two sheds look like any smart modern industrial buildings. Seeing the birds within, it is hard to see what the fuss is about.

Still, the facts of intensive chicken rearing don't make pretty reading. About six per cent of birds don't survive the 50-odd days it takes to grow them to a commercial weight. There is hot dispute about the number of birds which suffer lameness: my friends say a couple of per cent of birds show symptoms (and are culled). Some campaigners put the figure far higher. In the past, sporadic infectious diseases - now much reduced - used to kill whole flocks. But the situation on other fronts is worse now. As usual, it should worry the majority of us a little more than we can be bothered, and the hysterics a little less than their self-righteousness enjoys.

Our modern problems are caused by having bred birds which are capable of putting on weight very fast, and keeping them cramped during the last couple of weeks of their lives. The birds' weight-increase tends to outpace the capacity of their under-exercised metabolisms and skeletons to support them. They are prone to bone weakness and to heart attacks.

They need to grow more slowly and then either be given more space or killed when lighter. These kindnesses are already being achieved. Still, many poultrymen maximise profits by giving birds the chance to eat all day long, and keeping them in a sort of permanent dusk. The birds have a featureless day in which they never really rest, and never really exercise. Producers are slowly returning to meal times and a diurnal rhythm. Birds are being killed a little younger.

I get the impression that it is not the breeding of the birds which is the problem, but their living conditions. There is a sort of moral calculus to be considered. Domesticated animals, especially those which may suffer, ought to be killed as young as possible (at least then any suffering is short-lived); but a core issue in welfare is to allow them to grow more slowly, and more naturally. The ethical question is to find the least miserable middle ground. Unfortunately, the solutions result in increased costs in feed and energy, or a demand for space which the planning system makes scarce.

Foreigners in the EU already produce poultry with far fewer scruples than the British. If we become virtuous unilaterally, they will swamp our markets. We will have lost the chance to improve the condition of French or Spanish birds as well as our own. Besides, many of us are broke, mean or greedy: enough of us buy on price for all reform to be commercially difficult.

Because I am pretty sure I would have been a late convert to the emancipation of slaves or women, I am aware of the force of the argument that eating animals is an issue in a historic continuum toward sensitivity. I wouldn't be surprised if the ethical consensus 100 years from now places all half- way decent people as vegetarians. This may happen, in part, because the world's capacity to produce grain is proved to be insufficient to "waste" nine-tenths of the stuff by feeding it to animals instead of to people.

I loathe shrill T-shirt morality. I want to persuade people not to demonise cost-driven producers of animals, but instead to find those wise tricks which deliver as much extra welfare for as little extra cost as possible.