Rocky the rooster and the rest of our flock are securely housed overnight in a large sheltered area, with constant access to food, water, perches and nesting boxes. During the day, our hens are released to roam around the yard to their heart’s content. This means that visitors may see our hens roosting in straw bales, foraging for insects through leaf litter, or dust bathing under the trees. At the end of a long day exploring the site, our chickens return to roost and settle down comfortably for the night, with plenty of space to roam about if they so wish.
It’s an incredibly rewarding sight for our sanctuary staff to see, especially considering the state of our hens when they first arrived. Many suffered from severe feather loss, a pale comb and wattle that indicated the presence of mites and lice, and issues with their joints. Sadly, these symptoms are a common occurrence in ex-industry laying hens. With appropriate treatment and care, including regular worming and individual health checks, many of our hens were able to recover well and now enjoy a happy and healthy life. We are proud to know our hens as individuals, each with their own name, character and needs.
The number of hens on Earth now far outnumbers the human population. In 2017, there were 22.85 billion chickens in the world, up from 4.38 billion chickens in 20001. In terms of egg production, China produced the highest number of eggs in 2017 at an overwhelming 529 billion. With such astounding numbers of eggs being produced, it raises the question, how is this possible?
In the wild, chickens, like all birds, may lay up to 20 eggs per year. In industry, and through generations of selective breeding, layer hens typically now produce around 300 eggs per year. Egg laying is very energy-intensive for a hen. In order to increase efficiency in the industry, space is often restricted so that less energy is exerted through movement and more energy is spent on laying. Unfortunately, this means that many hens live in extremely cramped and stressful conditions, where hen-pecking, feather loss and even cannibalism can be a common occurrence.
There are various laying systems in place globally including the use of; battery cages, enriched cages, barn systems, free range and organic farming.
After just a 21-day incubation period, chicks use their egg tooth to break out of their shells and enter the world. After hatching and within 72 hours, chicks are sexed and placed on a conveyor belt. For the females, this means being packed into crates and shipped to a growing site until they are ready to begin laying at around 19 weeks of age. For the males, this means being gassed or macerated (minced) immediately, with no further opportunity to live. This includes males reared for the free-range and organic industry, as well as the conventional battery farming approach. It is important to remember that higher-welfare farming is still not free of harm to the many individual hens involved.
To prevent excessive and injurious hen-pecking in later life, day old female chicks are de-beaked using an infra-red laser. This means that sharp curved tip of the hen’s beak is permanently removed, causing harm, stress and pain to the young chick. It can be argued that the act of painfully de-beaking individual hens benefits the health of the entire colony through the reduction of injurious hen-pecking. De-beaking remains a controversial welfare issue.
In battery caged systems, hens live in wired cages approximately 50cm x 50cm. The floor is sloped to allow eggs to roll out of reach of pecking. There are no nesting spaces, perches, or dust bathing areas which means the hens are unable to display their natural behaviours. These cramped conditions and lack of stimulation leads to increased levels of stress and injurious pecking – thought to be a redirected foraging behaviour – that can cause extreme feather loss, severe injuries and even death. The cages are stacked vertically to as many as 9 tiers, and sheds may hold up to hundreds of thousands of birds with no access to natural sunlight or fresh air.
Fortunately, the European Union banned the use of conventional cage systems under the Laying Hens Directive2 in January 2012. However, millions of hens are still kept in battery cages outside of the EU. As a consumer, it is important to be responsible when buying food products by considering the welfare conditions of the hen involved. If you do not support conventional battery farming of hens, be sure not to purchase any products where eggs were sourced from outside of the European Union.
Enriched cages are similar to conventional cages but have been modified to provide hens limited opportunity to experience some natural behaviours. Hens are allocated 750cm2 of space per cage, with as many as 80 birds per colony. In reality, this equates to 50cm2 per bird – less than the size of one beer mat per hen.
Enriched cages are so-called due to their provision of perches, nest areas and scratching areas which were lacking in traditional conventional caged systems. However, the sad reality is that enriched cages still allow hens to suffer. Although nesting areas are provided, competition for this space is rife, and often permanently occupied by the more socially dominant birds. This means many hens are forced to lay on wire mesh or even perches, surrounded by other hens who may injure the vulnerable laying hen. Health problems, such as deformed keel bones, have also been observed in enriched cage farming systems due to the insufficient height allocation per perch. Finally, any substrate provided for dust-bathing is often inadequate in depth and abundance, meaning many hens miss out on this socially and physically significant natural behaviour3.
Barn systems allow hens to have free roam of an indoor space. Some barns have multi-tier systems that allow the birds more space to perch and roost – these systems are called aviaries. In Europe, the maximum stocking density is 9 hens per square metre of floor space. This increases to 18 hens per square metre in a tiered system.
Although the hens have much greater freedom to move, flap their wings, scratch and roost, they still have no access to daylight or fresh air, unless a non-compulsory outdoor space is added onto the barn. Conditions inside barn systems can vary massively, with some systems having much higher levels of hen welfare than others4.
Free range systems are similar to barn or multi-tier aviaries, but the hens have continuous daytime access to an enclosed outside area called a range. As per the 2012 EU Laying Directive, free range hens cannot be stocked at densities greater than one hen per 4m2. This means that the hens have plenty of space to fully extend their wings, move away from other hens, and exhibit natural behaviours.
Organic systems are similar to free range systems, but remain the only system that does not allow beak trimming. Moreover, organic systems do not use routine antibiotic application without due cause, reducing the risk of antibiotic resistance.
Here at Goodheart, we do not promote the consumption of any animal or animal by-products. If you are concerned about the welfare of laying hens, you may wish to consider reducing or completely cutting out your intake of eggs. This consumer-driven approach reduces demand and will eventually help to eliminate factory farming.
If this is not the right option for you, you may wish to consider re-homing your own ex-industry hen. This way, you can provide the highest levels of care for your hens and be happy that you have provided a forever home to a new much-loved pet. Many of our rescued hens were re-homed via the British Hen Welfare Trust (BHWT). You can find out more about their rehoming service here.