The living hell of their short lives has been repeatedly witnessed by Marcus Mueller, 34 — an investigator for the animal charity Four Paws — who has been working for many years to expose the industry’s cruelty.He has seen first-hand the brutality of the Hungarian plucking brigades — men and women who go from farm to farm stripping live birds of their plumage. There are plucking brigades in Poland, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova, but Hungary is the largest European source of down sold in UK products.For many of the birds, the agony has to be endured more than once. Grey geese, which are bred for foie gras, are plucked once or twice before being slaughtered at 12 weeks old; white geese, bred for meat, are plucked up to three times before being slaughtered at around 26 weeks.

Marcus says: ‘The men and women from the brigades work without feeling, grabbing terrified geese by their wings or legs, sometimes breaking them, always hurting them, as they tear out the birds’ feathers.’When it’s over and the birds are bleeding, the wounds are roughly sewn up with a needle and thread without any anaesthetic. ‘When their feathers grow back after about five weeks, it happens all over again — and all so you can have a nice winter coat.’The plucking brigades usually harvest around 150 grams of down per goose — enough to fill an average-sized pillow. Three or four birds are needed to fill a coat.The European Down & Feather Association, which represents  the industry, says it plans to  roll out an ethical certification scheme soon. In the meantime it claims that only two per cent of its feathers come from ‘live-plucking’ and it condemns the practice.

The remaining 98 per cent, it says, come from the food industry — much of which, of course, involves force-feeding birds for foie gras.However, Marcus says live-plucking is rife in Hungary, where most European down is sourced, as he witnessed on a tour this month. The figure of 98 per cent is a bit of a con,’ he says. ‘Only geese are live-plucked but the industry always speaks about the whole down production — and this includes one to two billion ducks around the world, which are not live-plucked.‘So it is true that the overall  percentage of all birds is not live-plucked. But for geese alone, the figure is very high.’Even manufacturers who state they don’t use down from live-plucked birds cannot be 100 per cent sure of their claim. Marcus says: ‘Brigades go from farm to farm, stripping the birds as they go, then these feathers are sold to brokers and middlemen who mix live-plucked feathers with those recovered from slaughtered animals, depending on the quality of the mix their customers ask for.