Whilst an important step forward in hen welfare, it has led to a common misconception that there are now no hens in cages in the UK. Unfortunately this is not true. Barren cages were replaced by enriched, and more recently colony, cages and caged eggs are still very much available on shop shelves. So what does this all mean and how do you know what sort of eggs you are buying??
What are enriched cages?The original replacement for barren cages, giving each hen about 20% more room. Imagine that A4 piece of paper and add a postcard. The cages have nest boxes, litter, perch space and some scratching materials and house up to 10 hens.
What are colony cages?These larger cages house 60-80 hens in large aircraft hangar-style buildings which are full of these cages. They have the same facilities as the enriched cages and the same amount of room per hen. In each cage of 80 hens there are 4 nestboxes.
What is good about the new cages?They have taken most of the hens across Europe out of tiny 'barren cages' which restricted their natural behaviours and movement considerably, but the most important benefit of the new larger cages is that they are an acknowledgement by the egg industry that the barren cages were an inhumane way of treating commercial hens and as such, an important step forward in the advancement of hen welfare. The new facilities give the hens the opportunity to exhibit some basic natural behaviours such as perching, scratching and nesting.
Cages now have nesting areas.
'Scratching materials' are provided, the rest of the floor is still wire
What similarities are there to the old barren cages?Unfortunately all too many. Hens will never see natural daylight, they still stand on wire floors, they are still routinely beaked, they are still sent to slaughter at about 18 months. Commercial hens are bred to produce high numbers of eggs (an egg a day) for a short period of time. This depletes their body of calcium and leads to brittle bones. Movement is still restricted – remember there is only 20% more room - and feather pecking still occurs. Hens coming out of the new cages are in a very similar state to those coming out of the old barren ones.
What problems are there with the new cages?There are very limited facilities in the new cages. 4 nest boxes for 80 hens is a tiny amount and will cause fighting; dominant hens will ensure hens lower in the pecking order can not access this facility. And submissive hens will also still not be able to escape bullying. The scratching area is often AstroTurf so the hen cannot properly scratch or forage – another basic natural behavior. Nor can she fly, jump, preen properly, dust bathe, sunbathe or even spread her wings.
Several tiers of crowded cages, two cages deep, make checking for unwell hens difficult and dead hens may lie unnoticed for days.
Cages are still very crowded but at least there are perches of sorts.
Whilst UK farmers are all compliant with the Barren Cage Ban, some EU countries (most notably Italy Poland, Greece and Spain) still defy the law and have the old-style barren cages. The UK government did not support its own farmers and thus failed to ban the import of these now illegal eggs. Whilst it is easy to identify barren caged shelled eggs (due to unique markings seen under ultraviolet), it is impossible to trace the source of liquid egg which is widely used in commercial products. Eggs crop up in no end of products, from the obvious quiches and pies to less obvious products such as wine. The only way to be sure your eggs are not from illegal barren cages is to make sure it says Free Range on the label.
My views on the new cages No creature belongs in a cage, be it hen, human or tiger. I have re-homed hens from enriched/colony cages and there is minimal difference in their physical and emotional state to that of their barren caged sisters.
A hen from one of the enriched cages Photo courtesy Jean Dow
The egg industry can dress the word caged up as much as it likes – colony sounds such a lovely word - and create a marketing smokescreen for consumers. The hard fact is the egg industry is responsible for the misery of millions of hens, as their only concern is profit.
The supermarkets' reason for stocking caged eggs is consumer demand. But on my visits to the supermarkets (and this is in a poor area of Cornwall, during the current recession) the Free Range eggs had sold out, it was the caged eggs that had not sold.
Free Range eggs sell from as little as 17p per egg, caged are about 15p per egg. 2p difference to us, but just think of the difference to the hens.
What can we do?As campaigns such as Chicken Out have shown, the British public care deeply about animal welfare; what they lack are truthful and accurate facts so they can make an informed decision.
The only way to make the egg industry and the supermarkets listen to us is not to buy caged eggs. Or colony eggs. Or whatever the new marketing word for caged is. Always buy Free Range eggs. And always check the ingredients list of any manufactured products for egg. If it doesn't say 'Free Range' it most certainly won't be. Then tell companies and supermarkets why you are not buying caged eggs.
Free Range eggs currently make up about 50% of the market, it is up to us to see it becomes 100%.
Lucky Hens Rescue North West Amberswood Common Manchester Road Hindley Wigan WN2 3DR