Chickens
Egg laying Hens

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 farm animals.

Credit FAWN  
Credit: FAWN  

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 not provided.

Free Range

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.

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