No ‘poultry’ pay packet for job with chicks

'Chick' them out, are they boys or girls?
'Chick' them out, are they boys or girls?

I love to wake up to the sound of the radio. Preferably non-intrusive speech radio to bring me gently into a state of wakefulness, rather than the sudden loud bell or buzzing of an alarm clock, which is sure to put me in a grumpy mood, at least until I get a cup of coffee.

On Wednesday this week as the radio flicked on at about a quarter to six (best part of the day, I say) and I lay there listening to the sound of Farming Today I heard one of the most bizarre and quirky stories in a while.

Now Farming Today has been there a long, long time – as long as I can remember. One of the stalwarts of BBC Radio 4, it’s a bit like the shipping forecast - of little or no direct relevance to most of us but at just over 10 minutes’ duration and nestled in between Prayer for the Day and Tweet of the Day, it’s reliable, dependable and a brief haven of peace before the morning takes off at an unstoppable pace.

So when the presenter, either Anna Hill or Charlotte Smith, I’m not sure which one, announced that the UK poultry industry is facing a shortage of chick sexers, I did prick up my ears a bit. The British Poultry Council has asked for this skilled job, she said, to be added to the list of occupations that have a chronic shortage of staff.

I had a vague knowledge that this sort of thing went on – perhaps from one of dozens of visits to Streamvale Open Farm when our sons were small where they got to handle fluffy yellow day old chicks. Maybe it was there that I picked up the fact that the girl chicks are separated from the boy chicks at an early age. I don’t know, but what I did learn from Farming Today is that chick sexing is a highly specialist career where up to £40,000 a year can be earned.

Forty thousand pounds a year? Where was that in the careers advice classes when I was growing up?

A chick sexer will pick up individual day old chicks and do a quick biological check.

And we’re talking miniscule proportions here, so excellent eyesight is an essential requirement, as is patience, for it’s repetitive and highly detailed with not much variation to your day.

At the highest level a chick sexer will be expected to process around a thousand chicks an hour, segregating them into male and female boxes, with 98 per cent accuracy.

You may know I keep a few backyard chickens myself and a few years ago a colleague was thinking of doing the same so he came up to the house to see what’s involved. Satisfied, he went away and bought three point-of-lay hens, put them into a pen in the back garden of his terraced house and waited for the eggs to appear.

I inquired a few weeks later about them. “One of them is very noisy” he said. “I’m not sure we’ll keep her, she’s starting to crow loudly and I’m sure the neighbours will complain about the noise any day now”.

Turns out one of his hens was in fact a rooster, and a prize specimen at that, as he discovered after I advised him to take it back to where he bought it - one of the two percent that got put into the wrong box as a day old chick.

Chick sexer? Worth every one of those £40,000.