Husbandry - Not System - Is Key to Good Hen Welfare

UK - In a discussion on national radio earlier this week, one of the country's leading academics on poultry welfare and the founder of a hen charity agreed that management of a laying farm has a greater impact on hen welfare than the system itself. Jackie Linden reports on the discussion, which included advice for consumers seeking eggs offering the best possible welfare, as well as how the UK egg market is evolving.
calendar icon 15 November 2013
clock icon 6 minute read

The BBC's consumer programme, 'You and Yours' on Radio 4 on Wednesday, 13 November, featured a discussion on how animal welfare-conscious consumers should make their purchasing decisions when it comes to eggs.

Presenter, Winifred Robinson, asked whether all free-range hens are as well looked after as we think. Is the welfare of free-range hens actually any better than those of caged ones?

Christine Nicol, Professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Bristol, described a study she made a few years ago, where she and her team applied the same methods to examine various welfare measures to birds kept in different systems.

They found that in the battery cages - which are now banned - the birds had very poor welfare. As a result, she said that she is very glad battery cages have been banned.

They also looked at birds in free-range systems, in barns and in enriched or furnished cages.

She added: "To our surprise, we found that on some measures, the birds hens in enriched cages had better welfare; so their mortality was lower, their bone fractures were lower and some of the damage that the birds can do to each other by pecking was lower in that system as well.

"However, I'm not saying that these enriched cages are the best option for birds.

"The best option for birds is free-range systems - without a doubt - but the free-range systems have to get the management right."

Professor Nicol explained that welfare is not simply a question of flock size.

"It's all about the detailed managment. There are many things that can go wrong in a free-range system and when things go wrong, they can go very wrong. It's really about attention to detail.

"Now what the consumer needs to know is that many free-range farmers are trying to improve their own welfare standards.

"Standards are moving in the right direction and to help this, the consumer still needs to be looking for high-welfare branding on the free-range eggs."

Consumers should not assume that if they buy basic free-range eggs, the welfare might not be what they think it is. If they go for some good welfare branding, they can feel more assured about the standards and that the farmers are really trying to address some of these issues.

Jane Howarth, founder of the charity, the British Hen Welfare Trust agreed with Professor Nicol, particularly that husbandry is a vital ingredient to high welfare.

"You can have a really well-run colony unit that will have birds in good condition and you can have a poorly run free-range unit where the birds have lesser welfare.

"The ideal solution is that we're looking for well-run free-range units, where the birds have access onto good range, they have got stimulation, they can perform all their natural behaviours which they can't do in a colony unit."

On flock size, she said: "It's down to the person tending the situation. You can have a 16,000-bird flock that is really well-run - the birds are well-fathered, they are healthy, their productivity is high, their mortality is low - but you can have another unit of the same size where the management is not so specific and all sorts of problems can occur, such as feather-pecking, where the birds come out looking 'oven-ready' with poor feather coverage."

Asked by the programme's presenter what consumers should be looking for if they are unable to afford free-range eggs, Ms Howarth said they should look to buy cage eggs from Britain.

"We've improved laying hen welfare in this country ever since the battery cage ban came in in 2012. Our farmers invested £400 million in the new colony units.

"If you're not in a position to afford eggs from one of the higher-welfare free-range units, look for eggs that are produced by British farmers.

"At least you know that those birds will be kept in the new colony units and that their welfare will be better than the old-style battery cages," Ms Howarth added.

Commenting on the newspaper reports that prompted the radio programme, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) stated that free-range is better for hen welfare.

It says that the welfare potential of ‘furnished’ or ‘colony’ cages will never be as high as free-range systems because only free-range and organic systems can allow the birds to perform all of their natural behaviours.

Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion said: “An enriched cage offers small improvements on the old battery cage but fails to provide for important natural behaviours. A cage is still a cage.

“I urge consumers to buy free-range or organic eggs in order to give hens a better quality of life.”

UK Egg Market

The latest statistics from Defra for the third quarter of this year, released a week ago, show that 50 per cent of the eggs produced in the UK are from enriched cages - up one per cent from the same period last year - while free-range eggs account for 44 per cent of the total. The barn egg and organic sectors share the rest of the market.

Over the period January to August 2013, imports of shell eggs into the UK was 26 per cent lower than the same period last year, while exports over that time - while much lower in volume than imports - were 29 per cent higher.

For egg products, imports for the first eight months of this year were running seven per cent below the same period of 2012. The Defra report notes that the figures for egg product exports are under investigation.

You can read more about the Defra report by clicking here.

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