The chicken! and the egg

The chicken! and the egg

I don’t care much for exclamation marks. I find them loud and crass. If all the punctuation marks got together for lunch, the exclamations would be the ones wearing leopard print tights, drinking everyone’s else’s Chardonnay and smacking semi colon on the bum. Yet, when I recently met the incarnation of an exclamation mark, my negativity unexpectedly softened.

            The free range chicken

free range chicken surprise

WHAT?!

Chickens are exclamation marks with wings and unattractive feet. Their faces wear permanent expressions of shock! panic! curiosity! indignation! and joy! The problem comes when trying to discern which they are feeling at any one time. Displaying almost no ability to transmit emotional range, trying to read a chicken is like watching a Keanu Reeves film.

Which is why I’m reluctant to talk about ‘happy’ chickens, but after a visit to New Dawn poultry farm to see where our free range eggs come from, I know I have seen fowl experiencing as relaxed and sheltered a life as they could possibly wish for. It’s the avian equivalent of living in the Maldives, without the piña coladas.

There are no definitive regulations for raising free range chickens in South Africa. Legislation only requires that the chickens are not caged, live in a barn and have daily access to the outdoors, but that could mean 10 000 chickens living in a 10m X 10m barn with a cat flap at one end. The South African Poultry Association guidelines offers suggestions for minimum standards, but these are quite relaxed and not enforceable.

Keanu Reeves free range chicken

Keanu Reeves’ acting coach

Even within these guidelines it is acceptable to house thousands of chickens in one warehouse at a population density of ten chickens per square metre*, without natural ventilation or natural light, and no limitation on the indiscriminate use of antibiotics, growth hormones or unnatural feed. As pointed out on africanpoultryfarming.co.za, the standards for free range eggs are so open to abuse, that anyone can claim to be doing it.

On the opposite horison, producers like New Dawn are forging ahead in the true spirit of free range farming. They use industry guidelines as a bare minimum, insisting on far higher standards of animal welfare. The chickens at New Dawn are given absolute freedom to wander as they please during the day, with easy access to the laying boxes and plenty of room to scratch and socialise. Their grain-free feed and water are readily available. They have karaoke on Tuesday nights.

A few things we learnt at New Dawn:

  1. Chickens are noisy. They are constantly clucking to each other, but with brains the size of a man’s thumbnail, I’m not sure what about. Probably politics. Or sand.

    social free range chickens

    ‘cluck cluck socialism cluck democracy clucking service delivery cluck’

  2. Chickens love sand. I was amazed to find chickens digging holes in the ground and bathing in the sand, often more than one chicken at a time. Sort of like a jacuzzi party, but grittier.

    free range chickens sand bathe

    Chickens love sand

  3. Chickens are destructive. A small flock of chickens will reduce a lush grassy plot to barren sand within a couple weeks. Then they dig holes. And talk politics.

           

free range egg

The free range egg

It doesn’t matter which you think came first (no really, it doesn’t) – you’re not going to get a healthy egg without a healthy chicken. That’s why we insist on free range eggs laid by chickens that live nutritionally, socially and biologically as close to nature as possible. Under such conditions the egg is a superfood.

Here are three things we love about eggs:

  • Shape. In Gulliver’s Travels, the island nations of Lilliput and Blefuscu wage war to decide whether a boiled egg should be cracked at the small end or the large. We love both ends. In fact, we love the whole thing. The egg is one of nature’s most perfect designs.
  • Versatility. Chef’s hats apparently have 100 pleats for the 100 ways to cook an egg. We counted and can’t get much past 10, but there’s no doubting the egg’s versatility in the kitchen. Poach and boil for maximum nutritional benefit.
  • Nutrition. Eggs provide the highest quality protein found in any food because they provide all of the essential amino acids our bodies need in a near-perfect pattern. Each egg provides an impressive 6g of protein. And more and more research is dispelling the ‘truths’ that we were taught growing up regarding the dangers of egg overconsumption. It seems we have been conned about cholesterol – high cholesterol diets don’t cause heart disease – and even more generally about the effects of diets high in saturated fats.

 

*Try this experiment at home: draw a 1m x 1m square on the floor and add 10 feathery and plump birds. Then play “the funky chicken” and see what happens – there’s barely enough room to move, let alone dance.

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