3 – Assault
A fourteen-year –old friend of mine became vegetarian
and gave up eggs. Nothing unusual in that you might say.
No, except that her father owned one of the biggest battery-egg
plants in Europe. Her Saturday morning job was to go
around all the cages and take out the dead birds! She
knew firsthand what egg production is all about.
Forget all those pictures of clucking hens sitting contentedly
on their eggs or being followed by a trail of tweeting
little chicks. The birds that produce 90 per cent of
eggs in Britain (and the rest of the EU, the USA and
other industrialised nations) have been turned into laying
machines. They never see a cockerel (male bird) so the
eggs they lay every year are not fertile and could never
hatch even if they were given a chance to sit on them,
which they’re not.
Let me take you through the life of a battery hen. A
day after being hatched in big, industrial sheds, the
chicks are divided by sex; males on the left-hand conveyor,
females on the right. The conveyor carries the male chicks
away to a bin in which they are dumped.
These chickens have been specially bred to produce eggs
and to survive on the smallest possible amount of food,
so they’re very scrawny. Because of this, male
chicks are no good for meat, no good for laying eggs,
in fact they’re good for nothing, so the factory
gasses them – 40 million every year. Or sometimes
they are crushed to death – it just depends on
the fancy of the particular factory.
The females are taken to cages, where they stay until
they’re about four months old and able to lay eggs.
It’s then that they are put into wire battery cages,
five chickens together in a space about 45 centimetres
by 50 centimetres, not much bigger that a microwave oven.
Now for a quick bit of maths. If the cage is 50 centimetres
wide and a chicken’s wings are 76 centimetres wide
when they’re spread out, what does it mean? It
means that not even one chicken has enough space to spread
her wings properly, so with five to a cage they have
absolutely no chance.
In a single shed there can be thousands of cages holding
tens of thousands of birds – row upon row stacked
four or five deep with nothing between them but wire
mesh. (In battery farming 20,000 hens per shed is considered
quite a small number.) The droppings from the birds in
the top tier of cages fall on to the birds in the cages
below, before finishing up on the ground. If you’re
ever unlucky enough to go into a battery shed, be prepared
for the stink, because they’re usually not cleaned
out for between 18 months and two years – the length
of the birds’ life. After this time the ‘chickens’ egg-laying
begins to slow down so they are killed to make way for
new birds, even though they might live naturally for
another five years or more. They finish up as stock cubes
or in pies or baby food – or even in school meals!
Hens make such good mothers that the word used to describe
them – broody – is used to describe human
mothers. When the hen’s chicks hatch, she watches
over them with an eagle eye. Wherever she goes her chicks
follow and at the first sign of danger she gives a special ‘cluck’ and
they all dive for safety beneath her wings. When the
day is hot and the mother hen rests, her chicks will
sometimes climb all over her and doze off on her broad,
feathered back. The perfect sun bed!
These are the same creatures that we cram into tiny
cages where they can do none of these things. Everything
about their lives is automated – the feed, the
water and the egg collection. Battery-hen cages all have
sloping floors so that the eggs they lay immediately
roll down on to a conveyor belt and away from the hen.
Watching a hen lay an egg in this cage is a very sad
sight. It can take up to an hour and she will pathetically
try to hide from the other chickens, scrambling beneath
them in an attempt to disappear from view. Farmers will
tell you that because the hens lay eggs it shows they’re
happy. This is like saying that everyone who goes to
the loo is happy; they are both bodily functions which
we can’t control.
It’s not really surprising, then, that battery
chickens get frustrated, bored and angry, and that this
can make them aggressive. They will often take it out
on their cage mates by pecking them; so their beaks are
sliced off when they’re chicks in order to stop
what producers call their ‘vice’. People
used to think that beaks were like fingernails: bits
of dead material with no feeling. But research by scientists
at the Institute of Animal Physiology in Edinburgh has
shown that they are extremely sensitive and contain lots
of nerve endings. When their beak is cut off, some chicks
die from shock, and some from bleeding, and it’s
possible they feel the amputation throughout their lives.
But battery hens are subjected to other hardships as
A combination of little fresh air and no daylight, overcrowded
conditions and selective breeding has led to a whole
host of diseases in the battery sheds. Things like egg
peritonitis, Gumboro disease, prolapses, leukaemia, and
infectious bronchitis, all end up meaning the same thing – distress,
suffering and death for two million chickens every year.
One of the most common ailments amongst battery hens
is brittle bone disease which results in their bones
snapping like dry twigs. Chickens evolved from jungle
fowl, which in the wild lay only about 12 eggs a year.
Battery hens lay about 300 a year and the calcium which
should build their bones is used to make eggshells. The
result is weak and brittle bones that break easily. According
to the British government’s own research council,
a third of all battery hens have broken bones. What must
it be like to spend your life like that, especially in
a crowded cage being pushed and shoved all the time?
That, then, is the life of a battery hen. The University
of Edinburgh looked at all the scientific studies and
concluded that ‘battery hens suffer’ and
that the cages should be outlawed. Anyone who says they’re
wrong should be locked in a telephone box for a month
with four other people, and then asked again!
Today most eggs come from battery hens. Don’t
be conned by the words ‘country fresh’, ‘farm
fresh’ or ‘fresh from the countryside’ either.
Unless it says @Free range’ on the box, the eggs
you’re buying are from battery hens. Unfortunately,
free-range eggs aren’t always all they’re
cracked up to be, either. The rules on free range allow
producers to keep 1,000 birds per hectare of land, but
if they are to move about as they choose, to stretch
their wings and legs, run, peck, scratch, find bugs,
beetles and seeds, and do all the things that hens like
to do, 250 would be much better. Some of the big producers
cram thousands of hens into a shed, stick a few openings
in it and call it free range. Many of the chickens never
even go outside because they’re afraid of crossing
other birds’ territory or because they don’t
feel safe surrounded by so many other hens.
For most free-range hens, life isn’t any better
than for the turkeys which are kept for meat in the pole
barns. The majority of sheds are just like there, overcrowded,
smelly and dirty. Whatever the system, all the male chicks
are still killed at only a day old.