Did you have an egg for breakfast this morning? And did it come out of a bright yellow egg carton? Then you may well have been eating a Happy Egg hatched right here in the North East.
William Maughan has 9,000 Bovan Brown hens producing an average 8,400 eggs a day at his farm in Morton Tinmouth West, in Bolam near Darlington. Already a free-range operation, three years ago he became a producer for the Happy Eggs Company, attracted by its higher welfare standards and happier hens philosophy.
It’s now a family business, involving William’s parents David and Lorna and his Uncle Peter, and employing Geoff Coleman as an egg packer. The Maughans have another farm three miles away where 7,500 Hyline hens also produce for the Happy Egg Co. Both farms are on the Raby Estate.
William said: “We were already a free-range poultry outfit and had the Lion Code on our eggs, and we also followed RSPCA Freedom Food standards, but then I got the chance to start selling to the Happy Egg Co. I was pleased to get on board with them and improve standards as they work to even higher welfare than that. They have a scoring system to pick the best farms and the best producers and they keep looking and reviewing. People come round and give us advice about once a month.”
The Happy Egg Co expects its producers to provide plenty of green pasture for the hens to roam, as well as an assortment of activities to enhance the birds’ natural surroundings, from perching platforms to sandpits and brashings, all designed to keep them entertained and healthy.
William, 34 and a father of two, said: “The 9,000 hens are split into three colonies and each has outside grazing facility where they have access to the ranges. We’ve got trees to provide shelter in the summer months, they like that bit of shelter and forage in between, and we’ve got these kits, we put sand in the bottom and the birds like to dust bathe and use them as perches, to get out of the sun or keep dry in a shower.
“The three paddocks for the three colonies all have the same features, and the same numbers of trees in there to encourage them out and that’s a big think with the Happy Egg Co, it’s about encouraging the birds to use the range and do these extra things. On a good day they will be right up to the boundaries, exploring, it’s amazing how much they do use it on a good day.”
William has joined a guild of fellow Happy Egg Co producers from around the country who meet up periodically and discuss ways of improving bird welfare, and learning from each other.
“People have different issues, particularly with the ranges. It’s interesting to hear about the different features,” he said. “We have a lot of hedges here which has provided a bit of shelter whereas in other parts of the country it’s pretty sparse. Some people are on really steep hillside, it’s all about trying to make the most of what you’ve got with where you are.
“And I’m trialling a prototype shelter, made by a company designer, to see if we can encourage more birds out; it actually gets used very well for shelter and perching, as well as some entertainment.
“The birds like to run from sun or rain or predators, so if a plane comes over their natural instinct is to look for shelter so that’s another benefit of their shelters. They feel safe having them there and they encourage them to go out further on the range too. One of their natural behaviours is to forage so they’ll scratch out looking for somewhere dry to make a dust bath and you’ll get a few hundred in there. The rest of the time when they’re out they’ll be scratching in the soil, scratching in the grass, looking for grubs.”
He says his hens play too, and describes behaviour which may sound familiar to parents of toddlers.
“Yes, playing, simple things – there’s a plastic drum in one shelter and they’ll spend hours taking it in turns to peck it. And again that’s part of what the Happy Eggs is trying to do, to find these traits, It’s a great opportunity with the guild because if something works it can be rolled out across all the producers.”
Bovan Browns are one of the better breeds. William said, and were chosen for his farm because they are quiet, inquisitive and good to deal with: “They have a few traits we like about them, all round they’re a good bird, and hardy in bad weather, although they don’t like extremes of wind or rain.
“They’re all the same age. We get them in at about 16 weeks of age, as point-of-lay pullets, and in about two or three weeks they are starting to lay their first eggs. We’ll keep them till they’re 72 weeks and then try to rehome as many as we can. The rest of them, the majority to be fair, get slaughtered, go for human consumption; that’s a very highly-regulated process, done to a very high standard, I’ve looked round the place. We put them on to crates and they’re taken elsewhere. The whole bird gets used, nothing goes to waste.”
When it comes to rehoming his birds after 72 weeks, he finds that people from local towns often ring up asking if there are any birds available. “After they’re rehomed they maybe have another year of laying in them but the egg production starts dropping off quickly. Also, they like being with other hens, they don’t thrive too well on their own. They’re a flock creature and like to have a large number of birds around.”
After the sheds are emptied, they are then thoroughly cleaned out in preparation for the next intake: “We spend a lot of time cleaning out the shed, disinfecting it, getting it really clean for the next flock. We spend a lot of time on bio-security which is important across a lot of farming industries these days. A lot of it is about keeping disease out in the first place. We’re quite lucky, we’re a few miles from the nearest other poultry source so that’s good for keeping potential problems out. If your next-door neighbour has hens too, then there’s always a worry about something coming from next door but we’re quite fortunate in this part of the world.”
There are shavings and perches inside the shed, and nest boxes which are designed to be comfortable – the majority of the birds lay there. Space is over and above the minimum amount, and provision is very closely monitored – “as it should be,” says William.
“They can use the same nesting box every day if they find one they like, usually in the mornings. The lights are on in here at 6.30am, so from 6.30-10am, something like that, the majority of the birds will choose to lay their eggs, usually one a day. Then have a bit of feed, they go outside – they tend to have the same routine every day, they’re very much creatures of habit.
“We produce about the same amount of grain as they eat, approximately 750 tonnes. We don’t mill it ourselves, it’s taken away for that and we take delivery once a week, put it in the tower and the feeder drops it into the hopper periodically about five or six times a day. The hens are very efficient feed converters, more so than say beef cattle.”
The eggs roll out of the nest boxes on to a conveyor and from there they drop into the grading compartment.
“They get graded for size at that point,” said William. “To do it by hand would be time-consuming so it’s a lot more efficient to put it over a mechanised system which can check for hairline cracks, shell quality, weight and sizes. Eggs with hairline cracks might go for catering where the shells don’t matter, so long as the inner membrane is intact.
“The good eggs are put on to trays, farm-stamped with our unique number and collected every other day. They actually get stamped twice – if you go into the supermarket or wherever and look at an egg, it will have a little stamp on the top then when they go over the grader it will put a best before on each egg and the Lion motif goes on and the number again to make sure it’s fully traceable back to the farm where it was produced so there’s no chance of any mix-up which is important, whatever you’re producing, whether it’s free-range, Happy Eggs or whatever. This is done in Lincolnshire where they’re put in boxes and distributed nationwide.”
Predators can cause devastation in a hen house, and even the presence of danger can put the hens off laying for several days. To prevent this, William has an electric fence around his paddocks which has so far kept them out. Like all farmers, he is attuned to his stock and said: “You get used to your stock, cattle or whatever it is, and before you’ve walked in the shed you know if something is wrong or upsetting them. Hens can be upset by an aeroplane overhead, or a hot air balloon, something that spooks them.”
It’s not just the hens at Morton Tinmouth, the family also has about 150 Continental cattle for fattening, grasslands for the hens and cattle, as well as for grazing and silage, and wheat, barley and oats. However, William is confident that egg-producing will remain part of the business, although he hasn’t yet spotted any of them on the shop shelves.
“Every time I go to the supermarket, I look for my eggs, it’s quite satisfying to go in and see the Happy Egg boxes there, it’s nice to see them selling well. I do genuinely think the company is doing a very good job in trying to improve things. Long-term it will be part of the farm business as I do enjoy working with the hens, and the arable and cattle work well together, it’s all part of the picture.
“And no, I don’t give them names but it’s funny, you get the same ones you recognise every day – they have personalities, they’re all different. I’m fond of them.”