It can feel daunting to ask a butcher if they are selling genuinely free-range chicken. But a good butcher will welcome your questions and be proud of their answers. So, how do you make sure you’re buying the best-quality chicken?

There are several farms out there who tick all our boxes – Sutton Hoo, St Brides Poultry and Pipers Farm among them – but you can’t always buy from a place you already know and trust.

Here are the questions to ask to make sure a chicken really has been reared more humanely and is slower-grown, offering lots more flavour and a more substantial texture.

Free-range chicken: everything you need to ask your butcher

1. WHAT BIRD IS IT?

Ideally the bird will be a slow growing breed – these are typically from Hubbard. The older a bird is, the more flavour it has. It’s also a much firmer meat and there’s more fat on the bird, so the eating quality is much better.

The Ross bird has been developed to grow quickly in industrial systems. It has very small legs because nobody really wants to buy them and enormous breasts.

2. AT WHAT AGE WAS IT KILLED?

In intensive systems chickens are killed as early as 21 days and typically around 35 days old.

“If a newborn baby grew as fast as your average supermarket chicken, by her third birthday she would weigh 28 stone,” says RSPCA’s chicken welfare specialist, Kate Parkes.

For free-range chicken 56 days is more the norm and this is still a fairly fast-growing bird.

Birds growing at their natural rate will be ready for slaughter at around 70 or 80 days.

These will have typically been reared in the most humane conditions and offer the deepest flavour.

3. HOW LONG ARE THEY HUNG FOR?

If they are hung for a few days, like game, this will improve the texture.

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Clever marketing using words such as ‘local’, ‘farm fresh’, ‘British’ and ‘natural’ are meaningless when it comes to animal welfare, but conveniently lead people to believe they’re purchasing a higher-quality product.

It’s purposefully confusing and it can be intimidating to ask questions if you’re not 100% sure of the answers you’re looking for.

A genuinely good butcher will be proud to answer your questions in an informative way.


4. HOW MANY BIRDS ARE THERE TO A SHED?

Ideally, there shouldn’t be any more than 500 birds per shed, if you got thousands then only half will go outside because they won’t be able to access the exits.

5. WHAT PERCENTAGE OF PROTEIN ARE THEY FED?

The chickens will be fed different amounts of protein as they grow, so you want to know what’s the maximum percentage of protein in their feed? Ideally, it should be lower than 20%. For context, there’s a huge difference between 20% and 24%.

6. HOW FAR AWAY IS THE ABATTOIR FROM THE FARM?

The journey is really traumatic for any livestock so the shorter the better.

Main image: Fosse Meadows chicken