Your organic eggs come from Harry Hodgson of Piercebridge Farm, near Darlington.
Harry was a bit of an egg prodigy. For his sixth birthday, he asked for chickens, so his parents bought him six; one for every year. Most six-year-olds can’t be relied on to feed a goldfish, but Harry was immediately devoted to his little flock – and wanted more! Some eggs he saved for his breakfast, of course, but the rest he sold through an honesty box at the farm gate. Every penny this miniature entrepreneur made, he reinvested in more hens and better sheds; today, he looks after 3000 birds.
In 1999, when Harry was 13 (an old pro at hen farming by that point), he received a letter stating that his usual hen food could no longer be guaranteed not to contain any genetically modified (GM) ingredients. After a bit of research, he realised that the only way to get 100% GM-free hen food was to buy organic.
The welfare of his hens had been of top priority to Harry from day one. He had always wanted his hens to roam freely outdoors on grass, realising that this meant the tastiest eggs as well as the happiest hens. Combined with his concern about non-organic feeds, it just made sense to go organic. He began petitioning his parents – who were so convinced by his research that they set about converting not just Harry’s egg operation, but the whole farm (which produces beef, lamb, pork and chicken across 300 acres) to organic. Piercebridge Farm received its full Soil Association certification in 2001.
The scale of Harry’s flock may have changed, but the level of care he provides for his hens has not. The Soil Association permits up to 2000 birds to live in each house. This is already the fewest permitted by any farming certification, but Harry goes well above and beyond – keeping several smaller flocks of just 600 or less. The state-of-the-art hen houses are movable, so each year they are trundled onto a fresh piece of organic pasture, rich in new clover to graze and new bugs to root.
“Fewer hens in a shed increases costs, but puts less stress on the hens and ensures free and easy access to their organic pastures and nesting boxes,” Harry explains. “If you have 45,000 hens in one hen house, there is no way that all of them will leave the house each day. Imagine trying to make your way through a crowd of 45,000 people to get out of a door – it’s not easy! As a result, many hens which are labelled as ‘free range’ will rarely, if ever, go outside.”
Since receiving its organic certification, Piercebridge Farm has won multiple awards for its environmental conservation efforts. They are part of the Higher Level countryside stewardship scheme, and over the years have planted miles of hedgerows, field margins and beetle banks. “The difference to wildlife has been quite remarkable,” the team say, with sightings of rarer wild birds seeing a particular boost.