Back in 2012, after many years spent tirelessly campaigning, my organisation, Compassion in World Farming celebrated the battery cage ban – making barren battery cages illegal across the European Union.
Many have a rose-tinted view of the battery cage ban, believing that for the last three years all egg laying hens have been kept in free-range environments. In reality, this is not the case. Sadly, it is far from it.
While the ban was an opportunity for a huge stride forward in the welfare of Europe’s laying hens, there was a flaw in the legislation. A flaw that I am afraid to say, many in the egg industry have seized upon – simply replacing barren cages with so-called ‘enriched’ ones. Unfortunately, this means that a staggering 60% of Europe’s 500 million hens still spend their lives in cages – 20 million in the UK alone.
Barren battery cages confined laying hens to small wire cages with less space than an A4 sheet of paper each. These conditions left hens unable to exercise or to carry out many important natural behaviours and caused immense psychological and physical suffering.
‘Enriched’ cages provide hens with just a small amount of extra space – the size of a postcard per hen, to be precise. As the name indicates they also provide hens with ‘enrichment’. However, this bears only a distant resemblance to the things that matter to hens, such as a place to nest, a perch and a place to dust-bathe. Ultimately, they confine the hens and constrain their behaviours.
I know from owning my own ex-battery hens, just how much they enjoy their freedom. This summer, my team carried out investigations in four European countries – France, Italy, Czech Republic and Cyprus – to discover what the ban really means for laying hens. They found hidden factory farms – very like in the old barren battery cage days. Many of those visited were meeting the requirements of the EU Directive, but in adopting the ‘enriched’ cage, failing to address the welfare needs of the hens.
Everywhere the Investigation Unit went, they encountered hens with their beaks cut off and bodies that were badly feather-pecked. Hens often appeared anxious and fearful of human contact – while others were too ill to move. In almost every farm, the conditions were so cramped the hens could barely spread their wings. In some farms the perches, which are meant to simulate a tree branch for roosting, were barely a few centimetres off the ground. In other cases, if a hen was on a perch, she could not stand upright because the roof of the cage was so low.
Here is an account by one of our investigators on what was seen at a farm in France: “The cages seemed to go on forever. They reached all the way up into the roof of the building, and along its entire length. There were so many hens all around me, and the sound of them all calling out was almost deafening. It was impossible to comprehend the scale of the suffering going on under that one roof.
“While I walked along the rows, small black eyes watched me through the bars. As I approached they shifted, treading awkwardly from one section of mesh-flooring to another. I couldn’t help but wonder how on earth their feet cope at all, a whole life time on bare wire.”
My team saw farms of all types: small and large, modern and ramshackle, clean and dirty. Regardless of the operation, the hens were tightly confined, spent their lives standing on wire mesh floors or slippery perches, and never saw sunlight.
The industry heralds these cages as a vast improvement to the banned barren battery cage. But when you see the way these cages still leave hens crammed, with barely any space to stretch their wings, even with minimal ‘enrichment’, it’s clear a cage is still a cage. The ‘enrichment’ in these cages is little more than window dressing, a cynical sop to consumer concerns. 300 million hens are currently living this way in the EU. Please join our campaign. And help us to end the cage age once and for all.