Free range quail egg business in Littlewindsor
PUBLISHED: 10:15 16 November 2015 | UPDATED: 17:07 16 November 2015
Inspired by a documentary, neighbours in a west Dorset hamlet decided to start a free range quail egg business. Abigail Butcher went to Littlewindsor to find out more
One late summer evening, five years ago, two couples sat around a dinner table in Littlewindsor dreaming of a ‘Good Life’ existence in the beautiful west Dorset countryside.
“We were discussing a shocking documentary we had seen on television about quail in France. The birds were caged and intensively farmed, and it revealed that most of the quail eggs used in the UK were being imported from France,” says Clare Snelling, who has lived in the west Dorset hamlet with husband Chris and their two sons for more than 20 years. “Our neighbours had the land and we wanted to see if we could achieve better living conditions for quail and keeping them free range. It was a bit of a light bulb moment.”
The Snelling’s neighbours, Lindsay and Charles van der Merwe, have 18 acres of land and between the four of them a plan was hatched — pardon the pun — to start a carbon-neutral business farming free range quail eggs.
“As we started to research the idea, we discovered most farms in the UK have ‘free to fly’ birds, which means they’re kept in large barns,” explains Clare. “We wanted ours to be outside and enjoy a more natural life. No one else was doing it this way.”
Quail are from the same family as partridge and pheasant. As they are classed as game birds, they are subject to fewer restrictions than other commercially farmed poultry, but the four would-be quail farmers compiled their own code of welfare which involved day time access to pasture.
By the autumn of 2011 the friends had, with the help of an incubator, hatched 120 birds and by spring they were selling their first eggs to local shops. They now have 1,200 birds and collect around 1,000 eggs a day.
Clare and Chris, who are based full time in Dorset, run the farm day-to-day around other jobs - Clare is a part-time nurse and Chris a local health care worker. Meanwhile Lindsay and Charles concentrate on the marketing and accounts, and delivering the eggs around London where they work during the week.
“I pick up the eggs every evening, when the quails lay, they tend to lay them on the ground so I then clean, dry and grade the eggs before packaging them,” says Clare. “The boxes are then couriered off to London, where our partners deliver them each day. I have one day off a week to do deliveries and Chris will also make deliveries if he’s going in the right direction through the course of his day job.”
The eggs are now stocked in high-end butchers and delicatessens all over London —including the famous food hall in Selfridges — as well as Dorset and Somerset. The free range Dorset business has also been featured in the Daily Telegraph and Country Life. They also won a Taste of the West Gold in 2013 in recognition of their eye-catching packaging and the quality and high welfare behind of the product.
Quail eggs, which are laid all year round, are about quarter the size of a hen’s egg, and can be used in exactly the same way - in cakes, scrambled, poached, fried, in canapés, boiled and added to salads, pickled, scotch eggs and even lemon curd. The flavour is similar to a hen’s egg but their size and pretty speckled shell makes them popular among gourmet chefs. These eggs might be small, but nutritionally they pack a real punch, with more protein, iron, potassium and vitamin B1 (thiamine) than a hen’s egg. “Children like them because they’re cute,” adds Clare.
At the end of last year, to deal with surplus eggs, Littlewindsor invested in a peeling machine and they now produce jars of pickled quail eggs to sell in pubs.
A happy healthy quail will produce an egg every day and half. The Littlewindsor birds come from a breeder in Exeter and, in order to keep egg production steady, the couple restock three times a year. The female birds are bought in at ‘point of lay’ about five to six weeks old and usually start laying within a week or so of arriving. At night, or if the weather is wet during the day, they are housed in five insulated wooden sheds which have wood shaving on the floor for bedding; each shed contains different aged bird. During the day the birds have access to pasture which is pesticide free, this gives them the chance to forage for tasty morsels. Laying an egg nearly everyday mean they need additional protein and so their diet is supplemented by GM free high protein pellets made from wheat, barley, sunflower and rapeseed.
Water comes from a natural spring and solar panels provide lighting for them in their cosy sheds on winter evenings. On all counts the Littlewindsor quail lead a pretty blissful Dorset existence.
The longer term plan is that the farm will eventually sustain Clare full-time. “Our two sons — Oliver, 22, and Harry, 20 — have been involved since the start and helped out a lot at the beginning though they have now gone off to university.”
The countryside around Littlewindsor, which is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is teeming with wildlife, though so far the local foxes and badgers have not sampled the quail. “We also have a sparrow hawk visiting us occasionally but it doesn’t cause any problems,” adds Chris. “Everything lives in harmony around here.”
Although the farm can be hard work at times, particularly during the long, dark, winter months, Chris says the project is very rewarding. “Working outside, getting fresh air and giving these birds a happier life makes it all worthwhile.”
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