At the West Waterford Festival of Food last year, I met a lady selling free-range pork and chicken from Kilkenny. She left an impression on me to learn more about our local “food heroes” and to create this series.
It must have been a combination of her willingness to explain the story of her product, her gentle nature, and knowing the hard work and obstacles she faces as a small producer that intrigued me and that I felt these heroes justifiably needed to be shouted about!
Making lemonade when life throws you a lemon…
Today Trish Butler farms free-range chicken and pork at home in Mullinavat, south Kilkenny and sells both at farmers markets and butcher shops* in the surrounding areas. Having bought a few turkeys to raise and gift (oven ready, nicely enough) to fussy relatives for Christmas, redundancy enabled Trish to research the possibilities of creating a business that held real meaning to her and that could offer a sustainable way of life to herself, her family and the area in which she lives.
With a course under her belt from Teagasc in Kinsealy and The Friendly Farmer, Ronan Byrne at the other end of the phone if needed, Trish took delivery of her first batch of chicks in late spring/early summer 2014 and was selling to restaurants by September and began the markets in November.
The Butler’s Free-Range Chicken…
Like many newborns, the first 2 weeks of a chick’s life are the most fragile & when Trish collects her day olds, she looks after them like extended family members! I saw this on the day I visited her farm with the day olds (by then 3 day olds) cocooned into the “nursery” as I ended up calling it. At this point they are not able to regulate their own body temperature, so the temperature must be kept around 34°C. This involves keeping them warm under a gas heater and safely tucked away from draughts while at the same time, giving them enough space to waddle around and explore their new home. Like new human babies, this is a time of intense care and it was very important to Trish that we get in and get out of their nest as quietly and with as least disturbance as we could manage. I think this is especially important because while they need the care of newborns, they are capable of toddling around and any fresh breeze and/or light would attract the curious (which are usually the most robust i.e. healthy) among them and this would mean compromising their little immune systems at this vulnerable age. Water is available to them here at all times through an automatic drinker which keeps them safe and they would “eat anything that goes into their mouth” at this stage, so Trish scatters feed on the floor for them to pick at, eventually they recognise their feeding trays so they are trained for their next home.
At 3 weeks they are moved into a bigger house. At this point they can now regulate their own body heat so the urgency of care is not so intense anymore – they are becoming more robust and hardy – and from what I could see they are at that teenager phase; the cute fluffiness is making way for proper grown up feathers and some are getting bigger quicker than others! I think this house is Trish’s favourite as you can see in the photo as it was especially cosy and snug on the wild winter day I visited!
At this point I think it is important to note that these free-range chickens are growing at a natural rate and at 3 weeks are just about a quarter of their way through their life, with plenty more time to let their bodies develop and grow.
At 4 – 5 weeks, they are moved on to the tunnel in the field. By now, they are definitely at the young adult stage, where they look like mini-adults, but all is left for them to do is grow bigger & mature in size. It is at this point that intensively produced chickens are considered factory ready.
It was very amusing to watch the carry on of the flock here. There was all sorts of personalities; nosey parkers, shy little ones, bossy ones, there was a pair of boys squaring up to one another, there was a particularly greedy looking one and a group of rather aloof looking ladies that did not want to be bothered by us.
Keeping a vigilant eye on them every day, if Trish spots a troublesome character or sickly little soul they are taken out immediately and disposed of in order to protect the rest of the flock.
Because of the very, very windy day that I visited, I did not get a photo of the fields but I must return some day and take a pic; there are a few of what look like plastic tunnels and these are their overnight lodgings. On the ground of each tunnel there are hatches that Trish opens up in the mornings so the chickens can wander outdoors, including when there are gale force winds blowing! I said to Trish, “gosh, but you don’t have an area fenced off for them around the tunnel” (like what I have noticed on other free range/organic farms) and she looked at me and said “but they have the whole field!” truly free range!!! Once they venture out, Trish has noticed that these chickens are in no hurry indoors – on a fine day! – and even as dusk approaches they still stay foraging in the grass.
To protect them, Tyson has taken his role of security guard very seriously, but does allow for the odd moment of posing for the camera….
The scent of Tyson is added protection for the pasture at night and so far, thankfully, there have been no problems with predators such as the fox or pine marten.
Other than a tonic in the first 2 weeks, the birds are not given any other medication in their life. They live in healthy conditions with well-developed immune systems and no stress in their lives so there is no need for medication.
Farm to fork mileage is kept to an absolute minimum with these chickens as the Butler’s have their own abattoir on site. The experience for the chickens is kept to a minimum of intrusion. Trish completes the procedure herself and incredibly patiently attends to one chicken at a time so their friends need not be any the wiser of what is happening. This means the bird is as relaxed as possible, leading to the best quality product with no bruising or stress related injuries. The markets take place Thursday, Friday and Saturday so Trish is kept busy in the abattoir twice a week to make sure her produce is as fresh as possible.
Not only are these chickens perfect examples of the farm to fork ideal, they are lucky the caring and loving farmer whose care they are in and we in turn are lucky to have such an ethical product available in our local shops!
- Dungarven, Thursday
- Carrick-on-Suir, Friday
- Clonmel, Saturday
- – Ardkeen Food stores, Waterford
- – Murphy’s Callan, Kilkenny
- – O’Briens, Market Yard & Loughboy, Kilkenny
- – Breagagh Valley Artisan Meats, Kilkenny.
Or, Trish’s chickens are usually featured on menu’s at Savour Kilkenny every October. You read about last years festival here… you may be tempted to come visit this year!