As it says on the TV commercial - these Waitrose free-range eggs come from a Marlborough farm

Written by Tony Millett on .

Rachel Rivers collecting eggs off the conveyor beltRachel Rivers collecting eggs off the conveyor beltThe current Waitrose television commercials have been causing a bit of a stir in the advertising and farming industries - and amongst television viewers.   They are revolutionary - the one for the supermarket's free-range eggs has no voice over or music and simply shows hens clucking contentedly and scratching in their field.

As well as primetime television commercials, 'Waitrose TV' has explanatory 'Day at the Farm' reports viewable online.  The one promoting Waitrose's free-range eggs features Rachel Rivers who is the poultry manager at Lawn Farm, Milton Lilbourne.

The farm of about 1,000 acres is owned by Canon Gerald Osborne, Dean of Pewsey and a Canon of Salisbury Cathedral.  It lies mainly in the Pewsey Vale - south of Martinsell Hill and up onto Milton Down to the south, and now concentrates on cereals, beef cattle and free-range laying hens - thousands of them.

The farm, which is certified 'organic' by the Soil Association, stopped being a dairy farm in 2004 - partly because of the plummeting price of milk - and the following year won a contract with Waitrose to supply free-range eggs.

Rachel Rivers looks after 4,000 British Black Tail hens and two rearing sheds holding thousands of growing chicks - some of which will be sold on to other farms.  They arrive as day old chicks, at sixteen weeks become point-of-lay pullets and go into the laying sheds.  At eighteen to twenty weeks old they start laying.  And will lay for up to 80 weeks.

Chicks at ten daysChicks at ten days A British Black TailA British Black Tail A frame from the Waitrose TV commercialA frame from the Waitrose TV commercial

Each hen will lay about 319 eggs a year - that means the farm produces at least 1,700 eggs from each of its two large sheds a day.  Once laid, the eggs roll gently onto a conveyor belt so they can be stacked at the end of the laying house.  Every third day a lorry arrives to take the eggs to be graded and packed for the supermarket shelves.

The hens are free to roam within two large fields - protected by an electric fence.  They are also protected by the dozen alpacas Rachel Rivers keeps as 'buddy animals' for the hens: "They draw the hens out into the field and they are good at deterring foxes."

Foxes do sometime risk being chased off by a cross alpaca. A fox has been known to jump up onto one of the corner posts - all four feet resting precariously on a post the diameter of a saucer.

The alpacas are now at their woolliest with their winter coats looking positively luxurious.  At the end of this month they will be sheared - and their wool will fetch just about enough to pay the shearers.

Not only is the farm, organic, but the two hen houses having no mains electricity supply - despite the nearby giant pylons that stalk across the Vale - survive on two small wind turbines and solar panels.  

It is quite obvious that these hens are having a very happy life - they have little groups of bushes to scratch around in and plenty of dust to wallow in.  And they really do cluck around contentedly and follow Rachel Rivers - and a curious guest like your reporter - around as though they were pets.  They are happy and Rachel is definitely happy - she just loves her job.

Alpacas...and hens Alpacas...and hens  Free to roam!Free to roam!

Of course you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs - and at the end of their laying life the hens go off to be processed for stock cubes, baby food and such like.

The television commercial was designed to support the Waitrose promise that "All our eggs are free-range".  The independent television production company making the commercial and the miniature video documentary were at Lawn Farm for a fortnight and used drone cameras for some of the shots.
The commercials have even included some live coverage from the farm.  "It is," says Rachel Rivers, "as it is - the cameras were set up and the chickens walked around them."

The longer video, with Rachel's voice over, has (as of May 1) had 28,938 hits on You Tube.

The other local farm featured in this Waitrose campaign is David Homer's dairy farm at Chisbury - on the edge of the Savernake Forest and with a Marlborough postal address.  It's a bit worrying to find the opening caption of Waitrose TV's 'A Day at a Dairy Farm' telling viewers it is in Newbury.