Intensive egg farming: The ‘untold suffering’ of the UK’s 14 million caged hens

Author: Maria Chiorando

Read Time:   |  16th November 2021

Despite battery farming being phased out, millions of egg-laying chickens are confined to 'enriched cages'. Many animal advocates have criticised this method of intensive egg farming as being unsuitable for hens’ needs. But still, people are reluctant to give up eggs from their diets. Here is why they should..

Egg consumption in the UK has risen year on year since 2006 – with some people choosing to eat them instead of meat in a bid to prevent animal suffering.

But animal advocates have concerns about the industry and the impact it has on chickens.

The nation’s flock of 42 million laying hens produced 11.2 billion eggs in 2020.

These eggs were produced via four different systems – organic, free-range, barn, and caged hens.

Caged is considered the most intensive of the methods. With barn eggs, hens are kept in barns up to a maximum stocking density of nine hens per square metre of usable area) considered ‘semi intensive’.

Under free-range rules, stocking density inside also is nine per square metre, and hens must have access to outside.

Hens laying organic eggs are reared under similar conditions to free-range, but in smaller flocks, with an organic diet, and no routine antibiotics.

Intensive egg farming: enriches cages

While infamous battery cages were banned in the UK in 2012, they were replaced by another intensive system – ‘enriched cages’.

These give hens litter, perches, and a nesting area, as well as a little more space than battery cages.

Much has been made of this extra space, however, in reality, this only equates to an extra 50cm2 per animal (less than the size of a beermat).

Vicky Bond is managing director of The Humane League UK.

She told Vegan Food & Living: “Intensive factory farming, in which hens are kept in so-called ‘enriched cages’, accounts for about 35% of the UK egg supply chain. This equates to fourteen million hens living in cages.”

She added: “Enriched cages still prevent chickens from performing many of their natural behaviours.

“The limited space impedes exploration, dust bathing, locomotion, foraging, wing flapping and full-stretching. The animals are boxed-in – and that is frustrating for the same reasons it would be for a human.

“This inevitably leads to untold suffering, and to additional harmful behaviours like feather-pecking, which decreases the animals’ well-being even further.”

Free-range egg retail market

According to egg industry data, the free-range retail market (accounting for just over 65% of retail sales in 2020), roughly doubled between 2004 and 2019.

However, this still leaves an enormous number of hens languishing within intensive conditions.

Vicky Bond said: “Although free-range systems are more numerous, and continue to grow in popularity. There is no hiding from the fact that fourteen million birds remains an unacceptably high number of animals who suffer unnecessarily in the crammed and painful conditions of cage-farming.”

She added: “Enriched cages are bigger than barren battery cages, but they still present a massive obstacle towards hens leading a better life.

“These birds spend their lives living on bare wire mesh, and will only leave this confined space when they are slaughtered. They will never feel the sun on their back.

“For these lively, sociable and inquisitive animals, life in a cage can only be miserable.”

Although the free-range egg market is growing, a huge number of hens still live in miserable conditions.

Although the free-range egg market is growing, a huge number of hens still live in miserable conditions.

Egg farming: the ‘grotesque’ reality of male chick culling

There are other concerns around when it comes to animal suffering caused by the egg industry. Most notable is chick culling, which happens within all four tiers of production.

This practice sees around 29 million male chicks killed annually in the UK shortly after birth. In fact, the The Humane League’s president David Coman-Hidy describes it as ‘one of the most grotesque corners of factory farming’ –

This is because they are seen as an unwanted byproduct by the industry, as they cannot lay eggs.

Gassing and maceration are both legal methods of slaughter for male chicks in the UK.

Want to learn more about the reality of life for Britain’s farmed animals? Read these articles next:

Are eggs really a harmless by-product?

Female chicks fare little better, suffering from a slew of health issues throughout their short lives, according to Abigail Penny, executive director of advocacy charity Animal Equality.

She told V&L: “The industry spends huge swathes of money each year to market and promote its products to unsuspecting consumers, often giving the impression that eggs are a harmless by-product.

“Tragically, that is certainly not the case.

“Originally, hens would lay 10-12 eggs each year. But over several decades they have been commodified and selectively bred to lay a staggering 200-300 eggs annually.

“This unnatural scale of production takes a serious toll on the hens physically, leaving the birds significantly more prone to painful broken bones, as their fragile bodies are forced to divert all energy to egg production.”

She added that many people are unaware that at just 18 months to two years old, ‘when egg production begins to slow’, the animals are no longer deemed profitable and are sent to slaughter.

Ditching eggs is a good way to help hens laying both factory farmed and free-range eggs, according to Penny.

“With so many tasty products available nowadays, it’s never been easier to switch to plant-based alternatives,” she added.

“Whether it’s tofu scramble, vegan cake or eggless quiche, animal-free options are just as delicious and make for a far more compassionate choice.”

Calling for a cage-free world for hens

However, she noted that while a ‘collective push for freedom for all farmed animals and a total end to animal farming’ via a vegan diet is important, it’s also important that ‘we never forget the millions of hens who are desperately trapped in the system every year’.

“That’s why Animal Equality is calling on the Government to ban cruel cages, once and for all – a move that would impact 16 million hens annually,” she said.

“While cage-free can never be cruelty-free, a ban would mark progress and move us one step closer to a world in which all animals are truly respected and protected.

“Add your name to our critical campaign today.”

The Humane League UK is also currently seeking to outlaw cages forever with a piece of legislation called Beatrice’s Bill. Poignantly, the bill is named after Beatrice, a hen rescued from a life in a cage by the organisation.

Vicky Bond told VF&L: “[The Bill] passed its first reading in the House of Commons on 22nd September 2021. We are currently waiting on its second reading.

“[It] received a letter of corporate support from such names as Greggs, Nando’s, Kraft-Heinz and Nestlé, the largest food company in the world.

“Additionally, a petition calling on public support for banning cages for hens has reached over 86,000 signatures.”

Now you know the truth about intensive egg farming, it’s time to quit eating eggs.

Find out everything you need to know about vegan egg alternatives here

Written by

Maria Chiorando

Maria Chiorando

Maria is an editor and journalist. Her work has been published by the Huffington Post, the Guardian, TechnoBuffalo, Plant Based News, and Kent on Sunday among other national and regional titles.

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