We’re so grateful for the time volunteers give to our charity, so it was a pleasure for some of our team to get out and do some volunteering themselves. A couple of weekends ago, our Fundraising Officer (Lauren) and Volunteer Officer (Sarah) joined OneKind’s social media volunteer, Gertie, to help at a hen re-homing in Scotland.
The hens released on the day were helped by the British Hen Welfare Trust, who’d managed to secure new homes for around 770 hens – all of whom would have otherwise been sent for slaughter. The hens that were being re-homed came from an enriched cage system. Most of them were missing notable amounts of feathers and some had significant injuries. Here’s what the day included, alongside information about enriched cages, and why OneKind have created a petition to ask the Scottish government to ban them …
Hen re-home day
We arrived at the sorting point; a hen-friendly location that had set aside two barns for the hens to take their first steps out of their caged system. These ladies had never set foot out of their cages; never seen the sky, never been able to walk about freely. The barns had been prepared with fresh straw, food and water stations to make sure their first experience was comfortable.
The van pulled into the location and volunteers started to unload the crates of hens – there were 12 in each. These birds had come directly from the farm that they had spent their full (short) lives.
The difference between and Enriched Cage and a Battery Cage
In 2012, the EU banned the use of battery cages due to welfare standards, however, the enriched cage system is very similar. Battery caged hens each had just 550 cm2 of space – about the area of a sheet of A4 paper. In comparison, an enriched cage allows each hen around an extra postcard sized area of extra space, according to Justin Kerswell of the Economist, 2011.
At the time, it was suggested that enriched cages would allow hens to express more of their natural behaviours. A perch was included, as was a nesting area and dust-bathing provisions. However, perches in these cages are low – eliminating them as a means to escape feather pecking. The ‘nests’ are simply plastic sheets hanging from the top of the cage. With up to 80 hens allowed in one cage, the dominant hens may prevent others from ever accessing these facilities and dust-bathing is generally not possible. In addition, cages are often stacked in tiers, making them difficult to inspect. In a large cage sheds, injured birds are often left to die unnoticed. Not really an enriching environment at all.
Our photos from the re-home
We’d anticipated a sad day and, initially, opening the creates of 12 was distressing. The hens were scared and (understandably) confused. The smell wasn’t great. If you’ve ever driven past a chicken farm, you’ll know what we mean; there’s a distinctive smell – a sweetish sickly odour.
We opened the creates one by one, counting out the 12 hens and giving each one a once over to check for sores, limps or visible injuries. One in particular had a particularly bad prolapse; another (who Lauren developed a particular fondness for) had a large open wound in her back. A good few had limps; suspected dislocations. All of the birds huddled together and headed for a safe corner.
Why were these hens being re-homed?
The wild ancestor of today’s egg laying hens was originally the Red Junglefowl. In the wild in Asia, Red Junglefowl produce around 12 eggs each year. However, modern commercial hens have been bred to produce very high volumes of eggs with a single modern hen; producing around 300 eggs during a year. Chickens can live for around 6 years, however, their laying productivity will decline after around 12 months. At this point, they are usually slaughtered and replaced, and this was the story for the hens we were re-homing that day.
Hen re-homing in Scotland
Within half an hour, the more confident of the hens started to venture out from the group and explore the barn. For the first time, they got to flap their wings freely and fluff themselves up in the straw and dust. They took their first drink from a trough that didn’t see the weaker ones pushed to the back, and they gazed with amazement as we held them up to the barn door; letting them catch their first glimpse of the endless blue sky. Despite many of them having bodies that resembled a refrigerator aisle chicken, the initial sadness of the day switched to a feeling of contentment as we watched them happily explore and cluck away to one another.
As people started to arrive to collect their rescue hens, the day only started to feel more positive. Each brought a box or cage to take their new friend home in. Some families arrived with children carrying boxes fully equipped with ‘Welcome Home’ signs, water troughs and sawdust. As we helped carry hens to cars, many people told us about the homes they were going to. A lot of people already had little hen families waiting to greet them. Those re-homers tended to take just one hen, as a single hen won’t be bullied too much when joining a new group. Others chatted excitedly about how this would be their first hen re-home, taking at least two hens so that they wouldn’t be alone in a new house.
I eat free-range eggs, so why do I need to worry about enriched cages?
do you know where the eggs found in your processed foods are sourced?
It’s become a lot easier for consumers to pinpoint where their boxed eggs are coming from, but do you know where the eggs found in your processed foods are sourced?
36 million eggs were eaten in the UK per day in 2018 (Data from Egg info website), 44% of which were from enriched cage hens.
In January 2019 Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night feast on Ch 4 revealed that caged eggs are used more commonly than customers may think. They highlighted that brands like McVities, Costa, Pizza Hut and Krispy Kreme (to name a few) were all using eggs from caged hens.
In terms of supermarkets, we know that Waitrose and M&S have already committed to a 100% free-range egg policy. This covers both whole eggs and eggs used as ingredients in prepared foods. Meanwhile, Tesco have agreed to stop selling caged eggs by 2025. In an interview with British Hen Welfare Trust, Tesco were asked, “What are you doing to ensure that those customers who want high welfare, can choose processed products – such as cake and quiche – which contain egg ingredients and derivatives produced to higher welfare standards?”
They responded, “All our products containing egg and egg ingredients are fully compliant with industry standards so customers can be assured that whatever product they buy, the hen has been well treated”.
Delving into standards a little deeper, Tesco’s website cites, “Tesco’s producers are required to meet high welfare specifications and must comply with the British Lion Code of Practice” – disappointingly, the British Lion stamp currently allows for the use of enriched cages.
The happy hen ending …
All the hens rescued from slaughter that day found new homes. One lucky hen went to a carer who treated her to a bit of animal reiki, whilst another (newly named Sweetpea) was given a little jumper to warm up her little body until her feathers grow. Her mum tells us that she has become very adventurous and likes to jump onto the kitchen table to eat as many grapes as she can get.
All of the major animal welfare organisations in the EU continue to push for a complete ban on cages – battery and enriched. Want to help us ban enriched cages in Scotland? Please sign our OneKind petition or join us today with a small monthly gift.