We care for a number of much-loved hens, many of whom were rescued from the laying industry. Let’s look at how their life at our sanctuary compares to that of a commercial laying hen…
In the wild, chickens, like all birds, will lay up to 20 eggs per year, on average, purely for the purpose of raising young. Nowadays, layer hens have undergone generations of selective breeding at the hands of humans in order to lay larger eggs and more frequently – typically around 300 eggs per year! Egg laying is very energy-intensive for a hen: it uses up valuable vitamins and minerals, including calcium, which is used to form the egg’s shell. Over time, this can have a huge impact on their small bodies, with conditions such as osteoporosis and bone breakages are such a common occurrence within intensive farm settings.
As well as being denied the vital nutrients they need to remain healthy, farmed hens are often subjected to terrible living conditions.
In order to increase efficiency and therefore profit, 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 pecking, feather loss and even cannibalism can be common occurrences.
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.
Our two resident cockerels and flock of rescued hens live over in our Goodheart Home for Rescued Hens, where they are securely housed in a large sheltered area, with constant access to food, water, perches and nesting boxes.
During the day, the flock can move between their large covered aviary, complete with dust bathing spots and enrichment toys, and a grassy outdoor enclosure which has lots of interesting perching spots and lush pasture to explore.
At the end of a long day, our individual groups return to their coop to roost and settle down comfortably for the night, with plenty of space to roam about if they so wish.
Seeing our happy hens enjoying life is incredibly rewarding, especially considering the state of many of them 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, these lucky girls 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.
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.
Cramped conditions and lack of stimulation leads to increased stress and 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 hundreds of thousands of birds with no access to natural sunlight or fresh air.
Fortunately, the European Union banned the use of conventional caged 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 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.
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 and the suffering endemic to the industry.
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.
We’re working towards a better future for all farmed animals, including hens and cockerels discarded from the farming industry. Making a one-off donation – or, better yet, setting up a regular direct debit – will help us continue our important work and provide a safe haven for animals in need.