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Scotland's larder: Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs

We talk to Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs, about the challenges facing her family egg business due to rising prices, the effects of the pandemic and the threat of Avian flu.

Published: April 13, 2022

Claire Strathern grew up on mixed arable farm near Stirling, her dad kept Simmental cattle, she said, "I got my first cow when I was nine, called Victoria who we raised her from a calf and she stayed with us until she died of old age."

However as a teenager her dad became ill, with a lung condition called farmers lung caused by mould spores in straw, hay and silage.

Happy Birthday

It was a worrying time for the whole family, but around the same time, Claire asked for some chickens for her 15th birthday.

Her dad's response was emphatic: "If you even get chickens, I'm get rid of them immediately. They are rats with wings. I detest them."

Despite her father's warning, her mother bought Claire 15 hens, a mix of breeds including Bluebell, Whitestar, Light and Dark Sussex, Isa Brown and Rhode Island Red.

Claire with her dad Jim, who was initially reluctant to get hens. Photo: Cat Thomson

Free range

They were kept in a converted garden shed and allowed to roam around their orchard – and Claire was hooked. "It's the way they walk around and their mannerisms, each one has a different personality," she said.

The family even had a cat, who was nicknamed chicken because she would follow and copy what the hens did. The chooks had James Bond-themed names; Moneypenny, Goldfinger, Bond, 007, except one Claire jokes, "called nugget."

All the happy hens began laying, so they sold eggs to friends and family. Claire's flock increased and, within a year, she had about 100.

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Good health

Her father was then strongly advised to change career due to his health. The doctors told him: "If you don't diversify, or come out of farming all together, you'll be in a wheelchair or on oxygen within a year."

So the family decided that Claire's hens might be the way forward for the family farm., and she came back and help on the farm. She said " I like being outside, I prefer that to being cooped up in a room all day."

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Hen from Egglicious Eggs taken pre Avian Flu regulations

Claire studied  HNC Poultry Production online with The Scottish Rural University College. The course covered both meat and egg production as well as every type of poultry farming method you can imagine from free range, organic, to intensive.

"I enjoyed the biology side, but I didn't enjoy feed formula calculation, because that is a lot of numbers and my brain doesn't work that way, so I did struggle with that."

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At school she had discovered she was dyslexic, but she said: "I have never let it stop me."

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Egglicious Eggs. Photo: Cat Thomson

Good egg

The family egg business expanded and they built hen sheds and the egg packing and grading facility and a small honesty shop." Over time the shop has expanded and it is now manned and sells more produce, including Buffalo farm and Puddledub meat, local milk and milk shakes, cakes, honey and local crafts fresh fruit and vegetables and handmade bread.

The bread they sell is made by special needs adults at Camphill Blair Drummond. She said: "It is lovely seeing them bring the bread in and we get to have a wee chat."

Currently, egg producers are faced with a combination of price rises, the avian flu threat and  the pandemic, which have all seriously impacted the way they farm.

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Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Camphill Blair Drummond Bread. Photo: Cat Thomson

Donate

During lockdown, shops, restaurants and cafes, the family’s main customers, closed. Claire said: "That was horrific. No one knew how long lockdown would last, and we were worried we would have to close the door."

With reduced customers, they donated over two million dozen eggs to local charities. Claire said: "Even though we got nothing for them, and it was painful on the pocket, we knew they were getting used by people who needed them rather than then going in the bin."

Added to that, no government grants were available to them and, when things started returning to normal, customers headed back to buying supermarket eggs.

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Chicken crazy. Photo: Cat Thomson

Consequently, she is not a fan of supermarkets.

"I'd go back to the old-fashioned way where you go to the butcher, greengrocers, or your local farm to communicate with the people that have actually grown your food. We have became far too reliant on walking into a supermarket and picking up an avocado, or a banana or a strawberry at any time of the year at a really cheap price."

Claire believes if people ate seasonally and bought locally, the situation would improve "and people would then learn to appreciate agriculture more."

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Egglicious Eggs farm shop. Photo: Cat Thomson

In the current economic climate they have reduced the amount of birds they have from 27,000 to around 11,000. Claire said "it was no longer financially viable and was very worrying."

Happy chooks

Hen welfare is Claire's  priority.

Until Avian Flu restrictions dictated they were housed indoors, her flock was free range. She explained:  "In normal times, every sunrise the doors open up and at every sunset the doors close to keep the hens safe from predators.

During the day the birds have the run of the orchard with apple, pear and plum trees to provide cover with shelters to climb on and hide under, as well as areas for dust bathing. This makes for an ideal environment for happy chooks.”

The shed is built in accordance with government regulations and Claire is proud that. "Scotland has the highest standards for poultry welfare throughout the entire world."

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Dozens of Egglicious Eggs. Photo Cat Thomson

They provide the hens with enough perches, ground space, feeders, waterers and enough nest boxes and there is a separate scratch area which is filled with sand and shavings.

The hen's nest box are closed at sunset to ensure they don't sleep in them to prevent them painfully twisting and damaging their breast bone.

Plus any spare fruit and veg from the farm shop doesn't go to waste, it is fed to the chickens; "they run around and chase tomatoes like footballs." Once they lay an egg it rolls away on a conveyor belt, to be sorted and graded and packed.

Point of lay

At the moment, it is just Claire and her dad working with the hens, although they have staff in the farm shop and in the packing centre to help grade and pack the eggs.

It is really important to Claire that the standards that the hens live in are the best they can be. They purchase their hens aged 16 weeks old, and they will stay with them for around 18 months.

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Egglicious Eggs farm sign. Photo: Cat Thomson

They rehome as many as possible but the remainder enter the food chain. Claire explains that flockdown, as the avian flu restrictions are known, "is a complete nightmare.

This year is worse than is before and has lasted for longer than ever." The hens must stay inside and her eggs are not allowed to be called free range.

They now have a sticker to say “these eggs have been produced by hens that have been temporarily housed”. She said: "I'm hoping they will eventually get back outside, but, at the moment, I don't think that will happen any time soon because we get continuous notifications about outbreaks every day."

Avian Flu

If Avian flu was discovered nearby, "it would destroy our entire business. If my neighbour's flock ends up with avian flu, then every single one of our birds has to be culled. It doesn't matter if they have avian flu or not."

In addition to that, feed prices have risen by 75 per cent, "and it keeps going up." As a result, half a dozen large eggs used to be £1.60, but are now £1.85 in their farm shop.

She said: "We are trying to keep the price as low as possible but we have lost a few customers.”, but it had came to the point now where we had to." So future plans are up in the air.  "We are just thinking about getting through this."

Claire Strathern of Egglicious Eggs
Egglicious Eggs with label which is now required by law

Claire also volunteers for the Royal Highland Education Trust to spread the word about  food and farming as "a lot of kids don't know where their food comes from."

In 2019, she won the young person of the year award in at Scottish Egg Quality Awards for her educational work. She chuckles. "Quite a lot of people have never seen a hen up close and are terrified of them. It tends to be guys built like a rugby players who run a mile."

Dozens

Recent news reports have warned that the cost of eggs is set to continue to rise and I ask Claire how expensive will eggs get?  "Oh, they will have to go up way more than they are at the moment. Every single poultry farmer is on their knees especially in the UK."

Another issue facing Scottish egg producers are cheap Irish egg imports.

Yet, despite all the challenges, Claire is devoted to her poultry. "I love my chickens. I will have have them no matter what. Even when I'm old and grey, I will have two or three in the back garden."

Egglicious Eggs

Foot O Green Farm,
Whins of Milton
Stirling
FK78HG

07802 830756

https://www.eggliciouseggs.com

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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