The government and farmers have defended new “enriched cages” for hens from criticism that they are little better than the battery cages they replace, which were banned two years ago.
The new cages typically hold between 60-80 hens, considerably more than the conventional battery cage of four to five hens. Under the new system each hen must be provided with at least 750 sq cm of cage area, of which a fifth is for a nest box. The overall total is just 50 sq cm more than before, equivalent to the size of a beer mat. Around half of the UK’s 33 million laying hens are kept in cages, with the rest equally divided between barns and free-range.
Animal welfare groups claim that hens in the new cages are unable to move freely, can’t flap their wings or lay eggs without being stressed by the presence of other birds. Campaigning organisation Animal Aid recently filmed undercover at one of Britain’s biggest egg producers, highlighting what it claimed are row upon row of crowded unhealthy chickens living in conditions where the birds compete to use the nest box and the enrichment is a small plastic scratching mat covered in faeces.
Animal Aid director Andrew Tyler said: “What could have been a major improvement in the quality of life of the UK’s egg-laying hens has been reduced to little more than a token gesture.”
An RSPCA spokesperson said: “Enriched cages are cruel. Scientific evidence shows they don’t adequately satisfy some of the laying hens’ basic behavioural and physical needs.”
However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs disagreed. A spokesperson said: “Both the European Commission and the Farm Animal Welfare Committee recognise the welfare benefits of enriched cages.”
The spokesperson added: “Welfare inspections are regularly carried out and any breach of welfare laws can lead to prosecution.”
The RSPCA believes most consumers want hens to be free range rather than caged.
When it became compulsory in 2004 for shoppers to be informed about how hens were kept this sparked a switch in sales towards cage-free eggs. In 1997, 90 per cent of hens were kept in battery cages but the figure today is less than half that.
A spokesperson for the National Farmers Union said: “UK farmers have spent over £400 million converting their sheds to enriched colony cages, which promote natural behaviour and have much more natural room than the barren battery cage. All the UK systems for egg production are high welfare and it is important that we give consumers a choice.”