A chicken and a wildflower meadow don't seem a natural combination, but in fact they're a match made in heaven. Let me explain.
Last year we were approached through the British Beekeepers' Association by Noble Foods
, the biggest producer of eggs in the UK. An enterprising manager realized that chicken ranges might offer some interesting opportunities to help bees. If you go to a free range chicken unit you'll understand. In the middle of a field is a vast barn, with something like 30,000 chickens inside. They're free to wander about, and indeed have to have a certain space per chicken to wander about. The thing is, they're not really interested. The barns are snug and the chickens have food, water, and egg laying sites. They might run about outside around their barn, but very quickly a visitor will be walking across an unpopulated grass field. A large chicken free grass field.
Graham - the enterprising manager - got to thinking that doing something with those unproductive grass areas might be a good idea. Noble Foods had already planted trees on some areas of their chicken ranges, but he felt there must be other opportunities. All the vast chicken-less grass areas were being used for was to make the odd bale of hay; it's verboten to use them for a commercial crop. Not only that, but uncropped grass needs regular cutting so they were actually costing hard pressed egg producers to maintain. He hit on the idea of wildflower meadows.
1. Lower maintenance cost.
2. Great for chicken welfare - lots of invertebrate snacks.
3. Large scale habitat creation - genuinely significant impact on the landscape and a fantastic PR opportunity for Noble Foods.
4. Engagement with local communities - Graham had thought of local beekeepers, but everyone will love the aesthetic appeal.
There are various practical hurdles, of course, which is where we come in. With the help of external consultants we've overcome the issues and will be starting to ship Noble a range of native wildflower meadow seed mixes in the next couple of weeks. These seed mixes are a cut above your normal agricultural cultivars - they are proper wildflowers. Graham has signed up producers for over 100 acres in year one, and we're targeting 800 acres over a decade. If that sounds a lot, well - it is. If all goes well we will buy seed from the early adopters after year three, process it and sell it on. Noble Foods' retailers have started getting excited about the project too, and I'm sure the Beekeepers will be chuffed to bits.
I'm so excited about this wildflower meadow project because of its size and because it's such a good illustration of why I set up Habitat Aid. This is in everyone's interest, for reasons commercial as much as ecological. My (small ethical UK) seed supplier loves me. The farmers love Graham. The retailers/local community/beekeepers/consumers love Noble Foods. I'm sure the chickens will love the wildflower meadows too.
Thanks Graham - great stuff, and fingers crossed. I'm sure Noble Foods will benefit in ways we can't yet even imagine!