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Juliet Gellatley goes undercover

Juliet Gellatley, founder of Viva!, goes undercover to witness first-hand the tragic life of British egg-laying hens

Juliet investigates the egg industry


Birds at ‘Sunny Farm’, owned by Bird Bros never see sunlight, or feel grass under their feet.

My stomach churned as the moon-lit silhouette of ominous-looking industrial sheds loomed ahead in the black of night. I clambered over hedgerows and stumbled across fields towards hell.

Thoughts of the rescued battery birds I’ve known and loved flickered through my mind: Lucy, who was curious and affectionate; Molly, who was determined to lay her eggs in my wardrobe (and did); and Ruby, who loved Pushkin – our knowing and tolerant cat. And yet, although the battery cage has supposedly been relegated to the History Book of Shame, I knew that the ironically named ‘Sunny Farm’, Bedfordshire, owned by Bird Bros, kept a staggering 450,000 birds in cages their whole lives. The company supplies over three million eggs a week to independent shops, high street multiples, caterers and wholesalers with up to a fifth being sold in supermarkets.

I entered a vast building to be faced with a wall of computerised controls and, with trepidation, I climbed metal stairs into a nightmare. There were three tiers of cages with numerous long, thin gangways threading through them. Each cage was filled with about 40 hens – many ill, some dying or dead.

I remember thinking this must be one of the biggest marketing cons ever. Yes, the battery cage has gone but over half of British eggs come from hens kept in… cages, bigger cages with more chickens! It is misery replaced with misery, pain with pain, death with more death. I saw birds huddled together on ‘perches’ and walking across gridded metal floors. Some were lying hunched in corners, their lack of feathers exposing the red raw skin underneath. One had lost every feather on her pathetic, fragile body. Many had disfigured beaks and pale combs drooping over their faces.

The pain and misery felt by these individuals was, to me, as clear as day, and I wondered how nobody else at Bird Bros could see it. Or, if they did, how could they live with themselves?

As we continued filming throughout the farm, stopping often to get a close-up of the cages, I saw live birds walking over dead – birds who had literally given up on life – and individuals who really, really needed help. One poor hen was unable to stand and so she just lay there, waiting for the end. It was clear that nobody had come to the aid of those in desperate need – nobody was ever going to come.

What a terribly sad state of affairs – a lifetime of misery all so that people can eat eggs. Another individual had what appeared to be a broken wing and she lay there motionless... barely alive, but still breathing. One was slouched against the bars with a growth that looked like a tumour protruding from her head, above her eye. I can’t begin to comprehend the suffering felt by these souls and I knew that they were defenceless from the pecks of other birds. In this world of torment and frustration makes birds peck at each other, sometimes until death. The industry’s answer is to mutilate their beaks when they are day-old chicks. What the birds really need is so obvious – freedom!

There is only one way to end the incarceration of birds and their misery in hell-holes like this. And that is to stop eating eggs. Please, choose vegan. Choose kindness.

Clucking hell

Claire Palmer is working on a major Viva! report into British egg farming and here she reveals some of her findings

Viva! has gone undercover to reveal once again the horrors of factory farming, this time for an animal largely forgotten by society – the laying hen.

In our new campaign, Clucking Hell, we show the true cost of breakfast eggs. Over half the 33.5 million laying hens in Britain are imprisoned in cages but our ‘visits’ to free-range farms, with their so-called higher welfare standards, show that they are little better.

One of the most cynical exercises undertaken by government and the industry was to ban battery cages back in 2012 following widespread objections – five hens crammed together in a space the size of a microwave oven. With a great fanfare, they replaced them with bigger ‘enriched’ cages, holding up to 80 hens. Bigger? A space the size of a snooker table where each bird is granted additional space just the size of a beer mat.


Dead and forgotten amongst the eggs

Out of sight, out of mind – it is easy to forget that chickens are related to the jungle fowl – an intelligent bird with developed, complex cognitive abilities to deal with pressure from competitors, life within a strict ‘pecking order’ and threats from predators such as foxes and raptors. Hens communicate in sophisticated ways comparable with some primates – just as the cognitive abilities of crows are equal to chimps and gorillas. Roosters protect females, chickens solve complex problems and mother hens emotionally empathise with their chicks. These impressive abilities are ever present in the modern, mass-farmed chicken but they are never allowed to express them.

Egg consumption in Britain is on the rise – almost 12 billion are eaten a year. An onslaught of spin tries to convince consumers that life for chickens is now good. Major players, such as Stonegate, show no incarcerated hens on their website; egg boxes feature idyllic images of farmyard chickens; and television adverts show hens roaming the range.

Recently, Viva! forced Noble Foods – one of the largest egg companies in Britain – to change misleading wording on its egg boxes.

In our investigation, the majority of farms we visited were ‘British Lion Quality’ approved. Some were comparatively small and supplied caged eggs to local businesses while K Fresh supplies independent stores. Two of the largest companies were also visited – Stonegate (selling brands such as ‘Big and British’ to Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Aldi and Asda) and Noble Foods (selling ‘Big and Fresh’ and ‘Chef Range’ brands to ASDA, Tesco, Morrison’s and other supermarkets). An enriched cage farm revealed horrors similar to those seen on the old battery farms. Row upon row of filthy, faeces-covered cages, crammed with miserable, dejected birds. Beak-trimming had not stopped injurious feather-pecking and red-raw skin was exposed on many. Viva! filmed suffering birds clambering over the dead and veterinary care appeared to be completely absent. From what we saw, hens who died in the cages would likely be left there to rot. Frustration at not being able to nest has always been a serious issue for laying hens and in enriched cages, it clearly remains.

Viva! found life on free range farms was little better. One in Spalding housed both barn and free-range birds and was one of the worst we’ve seen. The shed floor was gridded metal, the air filthy and dusty and there was extensive feather loss. Dead birds littered the grid and in the bins outside, we found piled up, maggot infested corpses.

Consumers are duped into believing that hens on commercial free-range farms live a happy, outdoors life. Competition from other birds for access, dire conditions and high stocking densities means many never go outside to feel grass or sunshine on their backs. Feather pecking leading to cannibalism and even death, is a widespread problem and has its roots in thwarted motivation.

Born in a hatchery, a hen will never have seen her mother. Around 40 million day-old male chicks are gassed each year in Britain – unsuitable for meat production! Before being transported to a growing shed, she will be pumped full of vaccines. There’s no happy ending for any of them – free range, organic or otherwise.

Deemed ‘spent’ at 72 weeks old, she will be brutally stuffed into a crate, shackled by her legs upside down on a slaughterhouse line and if the electric water bath works she may be unconscious when her throat is cut – or she may not.

Viva! has revealed that life in enriched cages is hell and free range is little better.

There is no such thing as ‘happy’ or ‘kind’ eggs in an industry fraught with pain, suffering, and short lives. Please choose a kinder, more compassionate lifestyle and go vegan.