yis divided into two mainsectors: egg production and meat production.Laying hens are a strain bred specifically forhigh volume egg production. The egg laying hens’wild ancestors – the red jungle fowl who still live inparts of Asia – lay between 10 and 20 eggs a yearduring their 10-year lifetime. Modern farming’s egg-laying hens have been manipulated through selectivebreeding techniques to produce up to 30 times moreeggs. The average yield per hen during 2006 was astaggering 300 eggs.
From hatchery to death
Hens start their lives inside industrial incubators ingiant hatcheries. Newly hatched male chicks areconsidered useless because they cannot lay eggsand are too scrawny a type of chicken for meat.Consequently, 30 million of them are gassed orshredded alive in giant mincing machines every year. Their female counterparts begin their year-long ordealof egg production at around 18 weeks.
Approximately 60 per cent of the total UK egg-layingpopulation (30 million birds) are currently kept inbattery cages.
Row upon row of cages are stackedin tiers inside huge windowless sheds thataccommodate a laying flock of up to 50,000 hens. A typical cage houses four or five birds, eachallocated floor space equivalent to less than astandard A4 sheet of paper. They can barely move,let alone stretch their wings. Under naturalconditions, hens instinctively display complexbehavioural patterns involving dust bathing, foraging,perching and nesting. Close confinement in cagesdenies them the opportunity to perform any of theseactivities. Even feed and water supplies areautomated, leaving egg laying as the birds’ onlyactivity. Deprivation causes chronic suffering andsocial conflict amongst cage mates, includingbullying, feather-pecking and, in extreme cases,cannibalism.
Battery cages are so inhumane that Europe’s Agricultural ministers have agreed to end the rearingof egg-laying chickens in battery cages across theEU – but not until 2012. The regulation states that by 31 December 2012farmers must have phased out the use of batterycages in favour of free-range farming, barn aviaries orthe use of so-called ‘enriched’ cages. The latter willhave to allow at least 750 sq cm of space perchicken – twice the size of current cages, but a cageis still a cage and once the compulsory nesting area,scratching pad and perch are taken account of, theextra space the hens will have is equivalent to thesize of a postcard.Welfare optimists are predicting that the high cost of providing ‘enhanced’ and bigger cages means thatthey are unlikely to be as popular with the poultrytrade as so-called free-range or barn aviaries. Thetrade itself is convinced that the current battery cagewill eventually be reprieved and demonstrates itsconfidence by continuing to feature the contraptionsat trade fairs.
Trauma of laying
Laying eggs is a natural physiological function forhens, although not on anything approaching thescale of the modern commercial bird. And withoutspace or privacy, the mere act of laying in a batteryhouse becomes an ordeal. Battery hens are deniedthe opportunity to perform pre-laying activity such asnest building. The resulting stress and frustration mayresult in stereotypical (meaningless, repetitive)behaviour.
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