Do chickens kept for their eggs fare better? After all you've
seen all the ads and egg boxes that proudly declare "country
fresh" and "fresh from the countryside", "farm
fresh". Surely this means hens are free to roam the fields
and woods? 'Fraid not! Unless an egg box actually has the words
FREE RANGE, it is certain that the eggs are from intensive
systems - battery units, barn or deep litter sheds. (In 1998
Marks & Spencer stopped selling battery eggs and only sell
free range; a positive move that came about from public pressure
against the cage system.) However most of Britain's eggs are
produced on battery farms, where the hens are squashed together
in small cages. They can never spread their wings, scratch
in the earth, perch or make a nest, dust-bathe, search for
food that is tasty and natural, or even walk or run.
Instead, five hens are packed into a cage of only 45 x 50cm.
(slightly bigger than your average microwave oven) and are
never allowed out again until they are taken for slaughter.
The average wing span of a hen is 76cm - so movement and natural
behaviour is severely restricted. Thousands of cages are stacked
into windowless sheds - with artificial lighting for about
17 hours a day to promote egg laying. Up to 90,000 birds are
packed in these sheds and they are all fed, watered and their
eggs collected by an automatic system. When a hen lays an egg,
it rolls onto a conveyor belt and is taken away to be boxed.
Birds of 18 weeks old are put into these cages and are not
removed until they are 18 months to two years old, when they
are killed. Try to imagine the frustration, the boredom, the
anger that this system creates. Hens in more natural conditions
will often live for 7 years - sometimes much more. Slaughtered
battery hens are processed into soups, baby foods, stock cubes,
school dinners or used in the restaurant trade.
And what of the male chicks? Because battery hens are bred
to be lean, to eat little and lay a lot, 40 million male day
old chicks are killed (often minced alive) every year - too skinny for meat, unable
to lay. Their bodies are used as fertilizer or as feed for
Hens in the wild lay only 20 eggs a year, which will mostly
have been fertilised by a cockerel and will hatch. There are
no cockerels in battery sheds so all eggs are infertile. The
battery hen has been bred to produce an unbelievable 300 eggs
a year - nearly one a day. However, this breeding has not stripped
them of their instincts and desires. Like hens in the wild,
they need a safe, private place to lay their eggs, something
which is not available when sharing a cage with so many other
birds. The process can take up to an hour or more, during which
time they will attempt to hide from their cage mates. The frustration
often makes them become aggressive. Hens lay eggs because it
is a bodily function which they have no control over, not because
they are "happy"
Creatures whose nature is to move around almost ceaselessly
during daylight hours must, when restricted like this, somehow
substitute their desire to peck and scratch in the ground.
The only source of interest left to them is the feathers and
flesh of their cage mates which they frequently peck - sometimes
to death. If you were squashed into a phone box with four other
people - maybe people you didn't even like - perhaps you would
become aggressive after a few months (or a few days?!). These "vices" could
be stopped by providing a decent amount of space but instead
of this many farmers practice beak trimming - a red-hot blade
removes part of the beak when the birds are young. Some die
from bleeding or shock.
The combination of a lack of fresh air and daylight, selective
breeding, and caging in overcrowded conditions has led to the
spread of diseases and to distress and suffering. Prolapses,
egg peritonitis, cancers, infectious bronchitis and Gumboro
disease are just a few of the conditions that thrive in battery
houses. The bones of battery hens are often so brittle that
they will snap like dry twigs. The Agricultural and Food Research
Council states that one third of battery hens suffer from broken
bones. A review of all scientific studies on battery farming
by the University of Edinburgh concludes that "battery
hens suffer" and that battery cages should be outlawed.
But then you didn't need a scientist to tell you that, did
you? The two million battery hens that die each year in their
cages are testimony to that.
Public protest has led to a small victory for hens. The EU
agreed in 1999 to a phase-out of barren battery cages. From 1st
of January 2012 the use of conventional cages is prohibited.
Only 'enriched' cages will be permitted. This sounds great - but
tragically "enriched cages" still mean hens being crammed
together in small spaces, with only a tiny amount more space
each than in battery systems.
Barn systems basically means thousand of birds packed to a
shed. They are not caged but still have very little space (25
hens per square metre). They are able to perch on raised perches
or platforms. Deep litter systems are similar but perches are
Free range hens are usually kept in deep litter or barn sheds
but must have continuous access to outdoors in the day – an
area which is supposed to be "mainly covered with vegetation".
Current EU marketing rules allow 1000 hens per hectare of outdoor
range. Some smaller scale operations exist where small flocks
are kept in moveable houses on more natural landscapes of woodland.
Obviously the genuine free range system is much better than
the battery – however the negatives are often that the
flocks are too large so that many birds never roam outside.
Females are still killed at the end of their laying life for ‘low
grade’ meat and the male chicks are all killed as they
can’t lay eggs. Mother hens never meet their own chicks – their
strong maternal feelings utterly denied.