Farming in his own right is a life-long dream of Fraser Murray’s, so when he got the opportunity to take on some land of his own, he decided to think outside the box to get the wheels in motion. Hannah Park finds out more.
Raised in rural north Inverness-shire in the Scottish Highlands, 25-year-old Fraser Murray grew up with the countryside and agriculture on his doorstep.
Farming has always been an interest, and throughout his teens he would help out at nearby sheep and beef farm South Clunes, Kirkhill, during lambing and at other busier times of the year.
After moving away from the area to study for a HND in agriculture at Oatridge Agricultural College, travelling and working in New Zealand, and later spending some time working as a shepherd on a farm near West Linton, Scottish Borders, Fraser was offered the chance return to South Clunes as a stock manager in July 2018 and is where he has been based since.
A desire to farm in his own right though was still in the back of his mind, so he didn’t hesitate when the opportunity came about to rent some land of his own in September 2018.
“I got the chance to take on six acres of pretty rough, wooded ground and it was a case of what to do with it,” Fraser says.
“I kept some sheep for a bit, but the ground would have needed investment to really make it suitable for them, and for the small number I would be able to keep on it, there wouldn’t be much return.”
So, after some thought, Fraser decided to try keeping laying hens on the area instead and in June last year, his first 50 birds arrived.
“I felt the quality of the ground was better suited to a free range egg business, rather than a productive sheep enterprise.
“Compared to sheep, the hens are much less labour intensive and can be more easily expanded in the longer term too. I would never have been able to keep many sheep or expand to the same extent I have with the layers with the ground I’ve got.
“I was into keeping hens when I was younger and would hatch out rare breed eggs and sell eggs to friends and neighbours, but I’d never really thought I’d have hens as a business before this.”
Having taken on an additional 10 acres since and with demand for eggs flying, Fraser quickly decided to expand and by September 2019 numbers had upped to a 300-bird flock.
Birds arrive with him at 16 weeks old from a supplier on the Black Isle to start laying at 18 to 19 weeks. A commercial Hy-Line, they are bred to lay about 350 eggs/year.
Fraser’s brother, Alexander, is a joiner and built the three 100-bird capacity sheds used to house the flock, each of which is fitted with solar panels to power LED lights used to achieve the 16 hours daylight he’s looking for to extend the birds lay cycle in winter.
Water too is carted to the hens in IBCs at present.
“The fields are quite remote, so getting power and a water lines to them would be difficult and costly and is not an investment I could justify at the moment,” Fraser says. “The solar energy has worked well up to now.”
Another initial investment was the egg grader, a second-hand tabletop Moba which, although a rate not needed at present, has the capacity to process 3,000 eggs/hour.
Having started off selling eggs to neighbours and friends locally and via an honesty box at the end of the road, Fraser has since obtained his producer identification number from the Scottish Government, alongside a food hygiene certificate for where the eggs are processed, to be able to sell eggs into shops and restaurants.
He sourced his first farm shop customer, Robertsons in Beauly, in autumn last year.
“I initially found it daunting approaching shops to buy my eggs,” Fraser says. “But when I got my first sale it was really rewarding and encouraging.
“We’ve had a lot of positive feedback on the rich orange colour of the yolks which you can tell is from a true free-range hen. This itself helps to sell the eggs, as people can really taste the difference.”
Marketing too stepped up with the arrival of more layers, a lot of which has, and continues to be, on social media and is done with the help of Fraser’s girlfriend, Grace Mullens.
“We’re always trying to big up that the hens are free range in our marketing,” Fraser says. “And the power of social media has been a massive aid in developing further sales in shops and cafes.
“Keeping our followers up to date with our hen’s day to day lives, roaming around in fresh pasture works as folks seem to be very interested in where their food comes from.
“Being based in the Highlands is also a big selling point for us, thanks to the picturesque landscape.”
Because of this, Fraser says, copyrighting his Murray Eggs brand early on was worthwhile, despite the cost.
“The tartan on the hen on our logo is based on the Murray tartan, and we also like to think our hens are ‘highlands happiest hens’ – a strapline we use in marketing. Having an attractive label is a key selling point which is crucial when selling in shops.”
Alongside Robertsons, Fraser now supplies eggs to another farm shop in the area and was set to start supplying a number of local food retailers until covid-19 associated closures were imposed.
But despite losing out on food retail custom, demand has shown no sign of set up. His farm shop customers have picked up all and more of what would have been the surplus, Fraser says, including small and pullet eggs ordinarily reserved for food service.
“Everybody seems to be buying local just now,” he says. “Demand has gone through the roof. There has been no limit on supply in recent weeks and the shops will take whatever eggs I can give them - the eggs are near enough sold before they’re laid at the moment.
“I only hope at least some of those who are recently started buying local will stick around once the situation starts to get back to normal.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Fraser is keen to keep up momentum and continue to expand his venture.
The 300-bird flock is now set to double to 600 by July this year, a decision he made pre-covid-19, and to accommodate the new arrivals, he has invested in a 300-bird capacity poultry poly tunnel.
At present, he collects, grades, boxes and labels all the eggs himself as well as delivering the eggs to retailers for sale which are situated within a five mile locality to where he lives.
This is all while juggling the demands of his full-time job at South Clunes which clearly presents its challenges at times. But Fraser credits his employers as being fully supportive of his poultry venture, having helped and supported him in getting set-up in his own right.
“It doesn’t leave me with much free time at the moment,” Fraser says. “But it’s just a balancing act to make sure the hens don’t interfere with my day job.
“At 600 I think I’ll be at capacity in terms of what I can manage in my current situation, but I really want to farm in my own right and it’s that which gives me the drive to work the long hours that I am doing now.”