The label ‘free-range’ is widely used to market and sell eggs, giving consumers the impression that they’ll be supporting farms where the chickens not only spend much of their time outside but are treated humanely. (Check out our page about other types of ‘humane‘ meat and dairy as well as our posts about ‘Red Tractor’ and ‘RSPCA Assured’.) But the term itself has been the subject of an impressive amount of marketing, and what the industry suggests isn’t necessarily true. Scroll down to read why…
  • Free-range hens are still predominately confined in barns

The reality for free-range hens is very different to what the adverts tell us. They are still very closely confined, with little room to peck and scratch at the ground. When most chickens live in abject misery, their living standards only need to be a made a little bit better in order to be given a new name. And the name in this instance, is ‘free-range’.

In the UK, free-range barns have a stocking density of up to nine hens per square metre. (The situation is even more dire for free-range chickens raised for meat; they are packed in at thirteen per square metre.) When you consider that a caged hen has the equivalent of one standard iPad’s worth of space, the extra pennies you spend on buying free-range eggs only guarantees a few extra square centimetres for the chicken who made them.

 

  • Fewer than 10 per cent of the chickens go outside

Pop-holes are the exits provided in barns to allow free-range hens to get outside. Most barns don’t have enough—only one is required, and barns can hold tens of thousands of birds—and the exits are often blocked by dominant hens asserting the pecking order. On average, less than 10 per cent of free-range chickens will be outside at any given time. What’s more, many never go outside at all.

Overcrowding in the free-range system leads to the same problems of aggression and feather-pecking that we see in cage and barn systems of egg production. This is caused by frustration and stress as the chickens compete for space.

  • Free-range egg-laying hens still begin their lives in hatcheries

Hatcheries are factories where chickens’ eggs are intensively incubated and hatched, and, regardless of where they end up, the lives of all chickens begin here.

After hatching, male and female chicks are separated as only the female chicks will grow up to lay eggs. Because they cannot lay eggs and are the wrong breed for meat, male chicks are of no subsequent use to the egg industry. They are killed, therefore, at about one day old. The most common methods of slaughter are gassing, suffocating, crushing, or grinding alive.

Male chicks inevitably make up a significant number of all hatched eggs, and we can only estimate how many hundred million are killed this way every year as no one deems their short lives important enough to record. They are not included in the over 945 million chickens slaughtered annually in the UK (as recorded by DEFRA).

The lives of all chickens, free-range or not, begin—and end—with violence.

 

  • Free-range hens are still destined for an early grave

Egg production peaks when a hen is around one to two years of age. After this point, a hen is no longer productive enough for a farm’s needs and she is killed, usually for low-grade meat—far younger than her natural life span of around ten years. (This is an acknowledged average lifespan for a chicken. Chickens are so badly treated that even rescued chickens tend to die young due to illness and disease contracted in their early months and years on farms.)

  • Free-range hens are still regarded as ‘egg producing machines’, and are slaughtered as soon as they cease to be profitable.

Whether a ‘free-range’ hen or a caged bird, the slaughter process is the same for all the animals. In the UK, chickens are either killed using a neck cutter (the most popular method) or gassed.

*Neck cutting: chickens are hung upside down by their legs on metal shackles on a moving conveyor belt, stunned in a water bath (which frequently fails), and have their throats slit (while conscious if the stunning has failed). It usually takes several minutes for the chickens to bleed out and die.

Watch Animal Equality‘s investigation into UK chicken hatcheries:

Watch Sky News and Viva!‘s undercover report on UK free-range egg producer, The Happy Egg Company:

…and it’s not just eggs! Watch Animal Aid‘s footage of a free-range turkey farm in Norfolk: