As with all animal products it’s easy to just pick up a box of eggs, or a chicken, in the supermarket and detach ourselves from how they were produced. Most people know about battery egg farming and its horrors and now believe that since battery farming was stopped in 2012 all eggs are produced with a high standard of animal welfare or that free range chicken meat means happy chickens.
2012 saw the introduction of ‘enriched cages’ for hens, to replace the old, even crueller, battery cages. The word ‘enriched’ makes it sound good, as if the hens live in a stimulating, natural and comfortable environment with the chance to practise their natural behaviours. Sadly, very sadly, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Despite the claims of improved conditions, enriched cages provide only the equivalent of a mug-coaster amount of extra space per hen compared, with the old-style battery cages. Around 90 hens are kept in one cage, with 14 hens per square metre, and the only ‘enrichment’ provided is a scratching area, often a small piece of Astroturf that gets covered in muck. There is also a ‘nest-box’, which may just be a screened-off area of the cage. There is no bedding or comfort in any part of the cage or ‘nest box’.
Hard to believe unless you actually see the hens that come out of these places, which I did recently when I adopted some ex-intensively-farmed hens…
I already keep chickens, my chickens enjoy freedom of the whole garden and have plenty of opportunity to carry out their natural behaviours of having dust baths, foraging for worms and insects, settling down under a quiet bush or clump of trees and wandering to their coop when they want to lay an egg. They enjoy sunlight, fresh air and the sound of other birds, they can perch on low branches and they even wander into my kitchen if they think I have some tasty morsel!
Compare this with my ex-‘battery’ hens, whose first experience of daylight and sunshine was at the age of 18 months when they were rescued by the British Hen Welfare Trust instead of ending up in pies and dog food. The state of these hens is very distressing; they have huge areas of missing feathers all along their backs, rear ends and on their chests, the ends of their beaks have been cut off so as to minimise damage to other hens in the ‘enriched’ cages. Their combs (the red bit on the top of their heads) are flopped to one side, and pale – you find this when chickens are under par, unhealthy and depressed. They had trouble walking – not used to being able to move very much. One of them had to be kept indoors for four days while I helped her learn to walk and de-traumatised her. They didn’t recognise real food, only being used to the ‘mash’ they’re given in the ‘hell farms’. They didn’t even know how to drink water from a puddle or bowl. They didn’t recognise when it was time for bed; naturally-kept chickens will wander off to bed at dusk, of their own accord, these ones didn’t know what dusk meant because they’d only ever seen strip lights.
Although they laid eggs every day as soon as I got them I didn’t fancy eating an egg from such a poor creature. And I’m sure nobody would if they saw the hens that lay their eggs – they look nothing like the pics of happy hens shown on egg boxes.
One week on and their instincts have come back really strongly, which makes the whole thing even sadder, knowing that they are so repressed. They take themselves to bed at the right time, they’re dust-bathing, eating a variety of food, scratching in the dirt for worms and grubs and showing a bright interest in the world around them. Having stood motionless in a corner for their first two days they now happily walk around everywhere and you can see them watching and listening with wonder. It’s very moving…
People commonly think that buying free range eggs means the hens are kept in humane conditions, but this is often not the case. They are still cruelly de-beaked – a very painful and inhumane process – when they are chicks. Millions of male chicks will still be killed as they are no use for egg production (chicks are crushed to death in a high-speed grinder, called a macerator, as a form of quick killing). And whilst they might have access to the outdoors it’s often just through some small holes in the side of the housing and the hens are so unnaturally kept that many don’t take advantage of, or find the access to, these escape routes. They are still sent to slaughter at a young age, transported in crowded crates on the back of lorries.
Until you have lived with and cared for chickens you may not appreciate what sensitive creatures they are, they have their own personalities and experience fear and happiness. They’re not just disposable assets.
So what can you do; where can you get eggs from happy chickens?
The best way is to keep a couple of hens yourself, if you have the space and the right caring personality. They’re very easy to keep, and a great joy. And you’re rewarded with fantastic eggs.
The next best thing is to find a local source of ‘backyard’ eggs, where you can see the hens and how they’re kept and be happy that they are well cared for. You’ll often see these if you’re out in the country – there’ll be a sign saying ‘Free range eggs’ or similar. You may also find these at farmer’s markets but ask questions!
In the supermarket, if you absolutely have to buy from a supermarket, go for organic free range eggs, as they have the highest welfare standards. You can also look for ones marked with ‘Freedom Foods’ logo as this means the farms have been regularly inspected, but Freedom Foods does not mean the hens haven’t been de-beaked or won’t be slaughtered at 18 months. Generally the higher the price of supermarket eggs the better the welfare, such as Clarence Court eggs sold by Waitrose, where producers pride themselves on their high welfare standards.
Just look at the pictures if you need convincing; compare one of my my existing chickens (below) with one of the adopted caged chickens (the main image of this post). A picture speaks a thousand words…