Few farming industries have seen more changes than the poultry sector over the years, and being the third generation to take on the profession, it is one which Forfar-based supplier, Robert Thompson, knows more than most about.

Like so many family farms, the industry has seen the loss of many poultry units, with both egg laying and broiler production now in the hands of a select view. Such have been the changes within the sector, that the UK is now only 65% self sufficient in chicken and despite the mass influx of laying units, some eggs do still have to be imported.

It's a subject which Robert is passionate about and one which feels needs addressing on so many levels.

"People seem to forget that there are two sides to our industry – eggs and poultry meat," said Robert of who supplies poultry packaging and sundries from Tpak Ltd, Forfar, and is on the NFUS board as well as chairman of Poultry Working Group.

"Only a few years ago the broiler industry in Scotland was huge and we were probably the most advanced of all sectors, but being located so far north and away from the main markets south of the Border, our costs of production are so much higher.

"Up until recently, Scotland produced in excess of 3m birds a week. Now, it is down to 800,000 and there are only a handful of contract growers left. Production costs have soared and those who remain are having to survive on the thinnest of margins."

Hitting out at the retail sector and the supermarkets in particular, he added that poultry meat has, over the last few years, been completely devalued.

egg boxes and packing box that are used by customers for their eggs Ref:RH270421360 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

egg boxes and packing box that are used by customers for their eggs Ref:RH270421360 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

"Chicken is highly nutritious, adaptable, low cost and suits most household budgets. Unfortunately, we suffer from large amounts of imported chicken being used in further processed products and the food service sector buying whatever is cheapest from countries that most certainly do not have the same high welfare standards.

"These products should be clearly labelled with the country of origin of the meat, and not hidden behind a 'packed in the UK' label. This practice needs to stop."

However, with education about food, where and how it is grown and how to cook it, of little importance to the Scottish government or indeed the UK government, Robert feels he is hitting a brick wall. He is also disappointed in the fact there are no education facilities for the younger generation looking to a career in poultry farming.

"There really is no in depth poultry education available anywhere, and that has been the case for some years now," he said.

"Auchincruive had a thriving poultry department for long enough, but selling off the family silver and reducing the facilities and the options was a poor decision that should never been allowed to happen. I have raised the issue on many occasions and the likelihood of seeing anything change in my time in the industry looks pretty slim. It is really sad especially when we have a vibrant, strong industry, where there are huge openings for people at all levels of capability."

While margins within both broiler and egg sectors are not the highest at present due to the increase in feed costs, he added that demand at the retail level is stronger than it had been for a number of years, even though the closure the food service sector during lockdown caused issues in the sale of smaller eggs which are widely used in catering.

On a more positive note, Robert said the supermarkets are at last encapsulating all sizes of eggs produced.

While demand has been strongest for large eggs, the campaign to promote mediums worked well with Lidl and Aldi, and fortunately the others have followed.

With the current transition of some colony units to either more free range or barn, the egg sector he said appears to be in a strong position. However, Robert warned that while demand for poultry meat remains strong, better returns are needed for both growers and processors when many products required within the industry have to be imported from Europe and with huge transport costs.

It comes as no surprise that with fewer producers, and more imports, Robert's own business which relies heavily on packaging supplies from the continent, is also being hit.

Tpak, based in Forfar, supplies mainly moulded fibre egg pre packs in plain print or labelled versions from Hartmann in Denmark, Hungary and Croatia. The range includes packs for 4,6,10,12 15 and 18 eggs with a range of plain, stock print designs and custom print designs all made in on-site factory.

Moulded fibre trays come from CDL in France for 20 and 30 egg in a range of colours.

A wide range of corrugated cases in Scottish and Stock Fresh designs are held on the floor, along with all accessories such as tapes and tape gun labels.

Tpak also stocks a wide range of mainly BIOLINK detergents and disinfectants, vitamins and water treatment. Litter conditioners, litter, grits along with a wide range of PPE and enrichments such as lucerne and peck stones.

Robert still rears and supplies about 380,000 pullets mainly supplying the independent producers producing and packing there own eggs. Units use compound feed from ABN and Harbro. Preferred breed is Hyline, but professional contractors are now used and David Rainford haulage, who runs a specialist pullet transport business in Preston, delivers them. All are Lion Code and RSPCA Assured.

T Pak has it own fleet of vehicles for delivering to customers Ref:RH270421358 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...

T Pak has it own fleet of vehicles for delivering to customers Ref:RH270421358 Rob Haining / The Scottish Farmer...


History: Grandparents started in poultry in 1919 and moved from South Shields, Kirkcudbright, up to Closeburn in Dumfriesshire where they produced Rhode Island Red cross Light Sussex poultry and pigs. They moved to Lannhall, Tynron, Thornhill, in 1955, where their pig and poultry business continued until 1963, when the pig factory in Thornhill would not give out long-term contracts. As a result, Robert's father, also Robert bought the first Warren Studler parent stock in the Scotland as hatching eggs from Guernsey in 1964. They were sex linked so the chicks could be sexed by colour – a first! This was a new breed and at a point there were 14 commercial hatcheries in Scotland.

The breed developed and as demand for brown eggs increased, compared to white, a new hatchery was built at Lannhall in 1972. The first Bekoto incubators in the UK went in and at its peak, in 1974, it produced 3.27m chicks.

Passionate about poultry all his life, young Robert went to Auchincruive from 1976 to 1979 and attained a National Diploma in Poultry – the sole course available.

Leaving Auchincruive, he worked for ISA at Peterborough looking after rearing farms and latterly taking on the role of technical advisor. He was nevertheless called back home by his father to sell chicks and pullets in the north of Scotland, in 1982.

The industry hit rock bottom in 1988 after Edwina Currie's controversial statement: "most of the egg production in this country, sadly, is now affected with salmonella" and heralded a major change in the industry with egg sales plummeting by 60% virtually overnight. A large number of producers threw in the towel, so there was less demand for chicks, which ultimately, over the years has resulted in Robert diversifying into supplying egg packaging to his existing customer base while also adding in all the extra parts as demand changed.


Best investment: Tpak warehouse in Forfar.

Best advice: Look after each other – there is always someone at the end of the phone.

Where do you want to be in 2030: Hopefully enjoying retirement.

What have you missed most during the various lockdowns: Being able to go out to the Arch Bistro, Fettercairn for Sunday lunch, where we are going this weekend.