4. Assault and Battery | Viva!

4. Assault and Battery


Do chickens kept for their eggs fare better? You’d think so, wouldn’t you, judging by the extravagant claims on the egg boxes in most of your local supermarkets –  ‘country fresh’, ‘farm fresh’, ‘farm laid’ etc. The implication is clear – eggs from hens which have been allowed to roam free across fields and woods? Not true!  Unless an egg box actually has the words FREE RANGE, it is almost certain that the eggs are from battery or barn hens. Even if it has these words, it may not mean a great deal (see later).

Life in the cages begins at 18 weeks old and doesn’t end until the hens have passed their peak laying period at 18 months to two years old, when they are killed.

In 1998 Marks & Spencer stopped selling battery eggs and now sell only free range – a positive move that came about from public pressure against the cage system. Sadly, almost two-thirds of Britain's 30 million egg laying birds are still kept in battery farms where they are squashed into tiny cages(8). They can never spread their wings, scratch in the earth, perch or make a nest, dust-bathe, search for food that is tasty and natural or even walk or run.

Five hens are packed into a cage measuring just 45cm by 50cm – only slightly bigger than your average microwave oven. The only time they leave it is when they are taken for slaughter. The average wing span of a hen is 76cm, the width of the cage is 50cm – so not one of the five birds can ever fully stretch their wings during their entire life. As if that wasn’t bad enough, thousands of cages are stacked one on top of another – long rows of them several tiers deep in large, windowless sheds. Electric lighting glares for some 17 hours a day, all to artificially increase the day’s length and promote egg laying. The birds stand uncomfortably and with difficulty on open, sloping wire mesh, through which their excreta falls.

There can be up to 30,000 birds in these sheds, all fed, watered and their eggs collected by automatic systems. When a hen lays an egg, it rolls to the back of the cage on to a conveyor belt and is taken away to be boxed.

Life in the cages begins at 18 weeks old and doesn’t end until the hens have passed their peak laying period at 18 months to two years old, when they are killed. Their meat is processed into soups, baby foods, stock cubes and school dinners or used in the restaurant trade. Just imagine the frustration, boredom, anger and aggression that this system creates. Hens in more natural conditions will often live for seven years – sometimes much more.

Hens in the wild lay only about 20 eggs a year, most of which will have been fertilised by a cockerel and will hatch. There are no cockerels in battery sheds so all eggs are infertile. Through trickery, genetic selection and food unnaturally high in protein, battery hens produce an unbelievable 307 eggs a year – nearly one a day.

The demand for calcium for the shells strips their bodies of this vital mineral, producing osteoporosis – weak bones that break easily. What it hasn’t done is strip them of their natural instincts and desires.

Like hens in the wild, they crave a safe and private place to lay their eggs, something they never know in the claustrophobic confines of a tiny cage. They may burrow beneath their cell mates in a desperate but unattainable search for privacy and the process can take up to an hour or more. They lay eggs because it is an unstoppable bodily function over which they have no control, like going to the loo. They do not lay because they are, as producers are fond of telling us, ‘happy’. In fact the opposite is true and their desperation and acute frustration frequently produces aggression.

Creatures whose nature is to move around almost ceaselessly during daylight hours must, when restricted like this, somehow substitute their desire to peck and scratch. The only thing of interest left to them is their cage mates whose feathers and flesh they frequently peck – sometimes to death. If you were squashed into a phone box with four other people – maybe people you didn't even like – perhaps you would become aggressive after a few months – or even a few days! The ‘vice’ of feather pecking could be stopped by providing space and interest but the widespread practice of beak trimming is much cheaper and simpler – the red-hot blade on an automatic cutter slices off  part of their upper beak – up to one half – when the birds are just chicks. Some die from bleeding or shock and they may feel the pain for life(9).

A combination of lack of fresh air and daylight, selective breeding and caging in overcrowded conditions – experienced by all battery hens – has, of course, led to the spread of diseases and to distress and suffering. Prolapses, egg peritonitis, cancers, infectious bronchitis and Gumboro disease are just a few of the conditions that thrive in battery houses.

The bones of battery hens are often so brittle that they can snap like dry twigs. The Agricultural & Food Research Council states that one-third of battery hens suffer from broken bones(10). A review of all scientific studies on battery farming by the University of Edinburgh concludes that ‘battery hens suffer’ and that battery cages should be outlawed(11). But then you didn't need a scientist to tell you that, did you? The two million battery hens that die each year in their cages are testimony to it.

I have some rescued battery hens and it is extraordinary how their natural instincts – utterly frustrated in these cruel systems – come surging to the fore once they are given their freedom. They run, flap their wings, excitedly hunt for food by thrusting the earth aside with their claws, dust-bathe, sun-bathe and fly up to their perches. The first time they felt rain they went paddling in the puddles, fascinated by this new sensation. They know to return to their stable as dusk falls to avoid predators such as foxes.

Their pallid pink combs turn blood red, their white feet turn a nutty brown and their over-long, white nails resume a normal length and colour because they are worn down by having proper work to do.

Constant protests by groups such as Viva! have led to a drop in the sale of battery eggs and finally the European Parliament has decided to act. Sadly, they don’t intend to outlaw battery cages but simply double the size of them and provide ‘enrichment’, such as a perch and a scratching block. These enriched cages are supposed to become law by the end of 2012.

As the sale of battery eggs has reduced, the sale of ‘barn’ eggs and free range eggs has increased, with free range accounting for 35 per cent of sales and barn eggs, six per cent(12).

Barn eggs! Sounds so quaint and rural doesn’t it? It’s nothing of the kind but again involves massive windowless, overcrowded sheds where thousands of birds struggle to survive. There can be more than 15 hens per square metre and the usual signs of acute stress are commonplace. In some barns where Viva! has filmed, many of the chickens were almost featherless. Barn egg production is just factory farming by another name, including the frequent use of debeaking, it’s just that the cages are missing.

Free range can be very little different to barn egg production. Providing pop holes in the side of the sheds, which are again often windowless, through which some hens can explore the outside world, is considered sufficient freedom to label the eggs free range. The sad truth is that many, if not most, of the hens never venture outside because it involves crossing the territory of other hens and can lead to aggression. As a consequence, debeaking is again common.

But what of the males? The eggs of breeding hens hatch into roughly equal numbers of males and females but because battery hens are bred to be lean, to eat a little and lay a lot, the 40 million male day old chicks born every year are treated as worthless trash – can’t lay and too scrawny for meat. They are simply killed, with carbon dioxide gas or are shredded to death in a mechanical macerator.

Their pathetic little bodies are turned into fertiliser or feed for farmed animals. The same applies whatever the method of production – free range, battery or barn – and there are no proposals to change this.