Smallholder talks to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the farmer, chef and broadcaster who is changing the attitude to chickens nationwide.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: crazy name, crazy guy! With his wildly unkempt hair, plummy voice, and deeply unconventional lifestyle choices, he would doubtless have ended up in Bedlam or been burned at the stake had he been born in a different age.

What kind of a man turns his back on a promising career in London to go and pursue a self-sufficient lifestyle in Dorset?

And yet Fearnley-Whittingstall has not only found complete contentment in his bucolic venture, he's also made it a commercial success, with a corresponding career in broadcasting, writing and catering. Now, in his latest series for Channel 4, he's made it his mission to transform the diets of some of the worst eaters in the country, by introducing them all to The River Cottage Treatment.

His views on locally produced food, our responsibility towards farm animals and even The Good Life will strike a chord with most smallholders.

Here Hugh answers some questions put to him by Smallholder: You're a writer, broadcaster, chef, farmer, gardener and journalist. What do you say when someone asks you what you do for a living?

I usually say I write about food. That's what I started doing, and when the telly shelf-life expires - which one day it will - that's what I'll go back to. Not that I've ever stopped doing it.

You've been down in Dorset for nearly ten years. When you made the move from London, did you know you'd end up being there permanently, or was it more of an experiment?

It was a genuine experiment, but I think I was relatively optimistic that the outcome would be that I'd end up living there. But it had to work on two levels. There was the TV experiment, my life at River Cottage, which was presented as being a fairly solo affair, but actually, if I was going to make the move long-term, that obviously was a matter I had to agree with my partner and family.

Your cooking is pretty experimental, you take risks and do things that others wouldn't. How often have you made something only to find it completely inedible?

Almost never, actually. My cooking is grounded in quite well-worn traditional ideas. Some of it goes back to old ways of doing things. I'm absolutely not afraid to go out on a limb and try an unusual dish, but often I'm making dishes that people have been doing for a while, or aren't common currency at the moment. So we make our own haggis, and we do it in quite a quirky River Cottage way, but based on some sound principles. It's not the recipes that are quirky, it's the approach to not wasting anything and making good use of ingredients like pigs' trotters and chickens' feet and that kind of thing.

Did you watch The Good Life as a kid?

Yeah I did watch it, and I was charmed by it.

So do you think there's some subliminal Felicity Kendall fantasy going on here?

If there is, it's definitely subliminal. Funnily enough, The Good Life was never much to the fore in my mind when we were doing The River Cottage shows, but then I think sometime after that they started repeating them, and I definitely had a sort of memory of that stuff, so it must have made an impression, definitely.

What's the concept behind River Cottage Treatment?

I've always felt that something of the River Cottage approach is relevant to everybody. And at the same time I'm aware of this sense in some quarters that an organic approach to food or a hands-on approach to food is regarded by some as a slightly elitist thing, that it's all right if you've got a bit of money or you've got a bit of land. Well, River Cottage isn't about saying everybody should become a smallholder, but it is about saying everyone should know more about where their food comes from. That's the underlying message, and I wanted to address that message more directly in the new series. And it seemed to me that the best way to do that was not to preach to the converted, but to go after not just the unconverted but the apparently unconvertible. So we've got people who do things a certain way, and got them down to River Cottage for a week to see if it changes their approach.

So you take people with appalling food habits, and try and change their whole approach to food in just one week. How successful has it been?

I think, in the end, real success can't be measured in the short-term. But there's no question that everyone who comes on these shows ends up in a very different place at the end of the week from where they started. How that will affect them long-term plays out over the next few months.

How was each programme different?

We got a different type of group in for each episode. So there are people who eat almost nothing but chicken, mostly battery-farmed and pre-packaged - then there's an episode with people who live off ready meals, and one for people who eat fast food all the time. It's the convenience obsession that we have as a rather grim part of our food culture.

How do you get people who, say, eat nothing but ready meals to change their habits?

The first thing is to give them some confidence, find ways to get them to find their feet in the kitchen, so that they don't have this thing of "I'm useless anyway, so why bother?" Secondly to get them feeling that the time they spend in the kitchen is actually quality time. I spend a lot of time thinking about food, writing about food and cooking it, yet still when I get home in the evening, for me the best way to unwind is to knock up a simple supper, from ingredients in the garden or what comes to hand. I wanted people to get a taste of that, to liberate them to change their ways a bit...

You're now relatively used to seeing your animals slaughtered now, but it wasn't always the case, was it?

At the end of the very first River Cottage series, when I took my pigs to slaughter, I tried to be very open about my emotions. It was an emotional moment, taking those pigs that I'd reared over the summer and become quite attached to, and that was the first time I'd reared animals for slaughter. But at the same time I'm very glad that I did that. It's that sort of emotionally intense experience that I wanted my guests to have in the new series, because that affected me profoundly. Even though I was already interested in organic food and the provenance of food, up until that point I would probably have occasionally casually eaten a ham sandwich without knowing where the ham came from. But from that moment on, no!

So you tried to pass on a similar experience to your guests?

Yeah. In show two, the ready meals guys, they were given an opportunity to come with me when I took two of my lambs to the local slaughterhouse. To their immense credit, they all decided to take me up on that. Nobody had to do it, and even when they got there, I told them they could leave any time they wanted. But they decided they wanted to go through with it. And of all the things in the three shows, that was probably the thing that had the most lasting affect on any of the guests. Those guys said, and I believe it'll stick with them, that they'll never take meat for granted again. If you can get people to focus for a while on the fact that meat really is a matter of life and death - there isn't any meat unless you go and kill an animal - hopefully after that it makes them think a little harder about the quality of those animals' lives while they are alive. The fact that we have to kill animals for meat means that I think we're morally obliged to really look after those animals very well while they're alive.

Delighted Joyce de Silva, of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), would agree. CIWF provided the distressing images of factory farmed broiler chicken for use in the show and also as part of the "Clucking Disgusting" campaign on the River Cottage Website. She told Smallholder that CIWF were "absolutely delighted that Hugh chose to highlight the appalling plight of broiler chickens in this country."

She sees the issue as two fold; the cramped conditions in which the broilers are raised and the way that the broiler chicken is bred to grow rapidly which leads to welfare problems such as leg conditions. CIWF have a major "Chickens Out" campaign which is currently focused on obtaining an EU Directive to improve the welfare of broiler chickens.

They are also targeting supermarkets and consumers to supply and buy the more welfare friendly alternatives. It seems that compassionate television viewers agreed with her.

After Hugh's Show on broiler chickens, the River Cottage team had word that some supermarkets had completely sold out of free range and organic chicken the day after the first show aired.

For those who want to produce their own poultry, River Cottage are offering one-day courses which they say will teach you all you need to know about rearing, buying, keeping and eating chicken.

Details of this and other activities are on their website ( It's also worth taking a look at Channel 4 are planning more from River Cottage in 2007 - we'll keep you informed l Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's new book, Hugh Fearlessly Eats it All, is published by Bloomsbury priced £15.99.