By Harry Wallop
A scientist claims caged hens live better than free-range birds. Has common sense flown the coop?
At first, the sheer scale is hard to fathom. I can see yard after yard of metal and hardly any animals. But the noise is unmistakable: a steady clucking sound, which rumbles throughout the enormous building.
It is only when your eyes adjust to the low level of light that you slowly notice the birds. Initially, just a few hundred and then more and more. I am standing on a metal gangway – like the ones you find in high security prisons. On either side of the narrow walkway, hens are packed in groups of 60 to each “cage”. The cages stretch for 330 feet to the end of the shed, and they run along each of the eight different storeys in the shed. I am on the highest level and can glimpse thousands of feathers and glinting eyes beneath my feet. It is unnerving.
In total, there are 76,000 hens in this shed. This is just one of the five sheds that Phill Crawley, a ruddy-faced, second-generation poultry farmer, owns in Leicestershire. And, alongside the barns dotted among the orchards and fields, are thousands upon thousands more chickens.
That is because Sunrise Eggs, his family company – responsible for 2 per cent of the 9.3 billion eggs laid in Britain every year – produces free-range as well as “colony” eggs.
Colony, or “enriched cage”, used to be known as battery eggs, but the European Union last year forced all farmers to move to the higher-welfare colony system, after years of wrangling with the industry. Under the old system, you were allowed to keep 18 hens in one square metre – about the size of the floor of a telephone box. The new system allows for 13 hens in the same area.
To my eye, this existence still looks pretty miserable. The hens never leave their cage, never see daylight and cannot walk more than a few feet back and forth. Crawley says matter of factly: “They’ve never known any different.”
He has allowed me in to inspect his farm after a leading chicken expert at the University of Bristol, Prof Christine Nicol, suggested that many free-range hens were no happier than those in enriched cages.
“It looks horrendous. It looks like a factory, your worst nightmare of an industrial intensive system,” Prof Nicol said. “But when you look inside the cages, I’m not saying it’s great… but the birds have space, they have a perch, they have got things to scratch on.”
Crawley is rightly proud of his well-run farm. His colony sheds are industrial, but along with that comes a surprisingly low level of smell and dirt – the chicken muck is taken away on a conveyor belt every two days, keeping the floors of the cage surprisingly clean. He plucks a hen from the cage and lets me inspect it closely: its feathers are glossy and its eyes are bright.
“I don’t think any system is perfect,” he says. “Each system has its good points as well as its not-so-good points.”
A few years ago it seemed all the supermarkets would join the likes of Marks & Spencer and become free-range only. “But then the credit crunch came along,” says Crawley. “And the supermarkets said, ‘Actually, we’d better keep colony hens.’ It was very much a cost-driven thing.”
At Tesco, half a dozen medium free-range eggs cost £1.30. Its everyday value ones are 93p. Many consumers may wince at the idea of “enriched cage” hens, but not at the price of their eggs. Only half of all the eggs consumed in Britain are free-range or organic (which has even stricter standards of animal welfare).
“Free-range is more labour-intensive,” explains Crawley, as he takes me across to one of his huge free-range barns, or huts. One worker is needed per 16,000 free-range hens, compared with one worker per 50,000 colony hens.
Curiously, he knocks on the door, before entering. “I do it so the chickens aren’t surprised when I come in.” He is not being sentimental; he is just trying to ensure that they don’t get stressed.
This is the key issue. Caged hens, even “enriched” ones, are fully controlled to the last inch. “Colony birds have a consistent life. There are far fewer variable factors compared with a free range.” And the big variable in the free-range hut right now is me and The Daily Telegraph’s photographer clomping about.
There are two key criteria that define hens as free-range under EU and British Lion guidelines. Firstly, they must have access to the outside. This is accomplished by opening a series of hatches along the side of the hut during daylight hours. About a quarter of the hens are outside, some rootling about in an orchard, and some even perched on the low branches of trees.
But the rest are inside – hordes of them, with an alarmingly large clutch gathering around my feet trying to untie the laces of my shoes and pecking my ankles.
The second free-range criterium is that there can be no more than nine animals per square metre, which is still pretty crowded.
So, while the hens outside look a happy, even an idyllic, sight in the autumnal Leicestershire fields, there is an industrial feel to the swarm of free-range hens inside. “There are some humans who jump out of bed at 5am and go to work. There are some who slump on the sofa all day with a four-pack of strong brew. And there are all those in between,” says Crawley. “Free-range hens are no different.”
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the chef and a long-term campaigner for animal welfare, says he is unconvinced by the idea that colony birds can be as happy: “Only free-range birds are able express the full range of natural behaviours that hens naturally wish to engage in – foraging for natural foods such as plants and bugs, wing flapping, dust bathing, nesting and laying in comfort, and all the time moving in a natural environment without any restrictions. I’m sure it’s not easy to assess the welfare benefits of these behaviours scientifically.”
This point, of course, only refers to those hens who choose to explore the outside. Not the poultry layabouts.
There is one thing, though, I have yet to inspect: the taste of the eggs, which is an aspect of the free-range debate that many chefs do not address.
Crawley takes me back to his farmhouse, where his wife Jane cooks me two boiled eggs, both laid just a few hours previously.
I crack the tops off. One looks immediately golden and inviting, one a bit pallid. But both taste almost identical – rich without being luscious.
It turns out that the nice-looking one is the colony egg, not the free-range one as I had presumed. “It’s likely the pigment in the food made it that colour,” explains Crawley. I arch my eyebrow. “But that doesn’t mean it’s artificial. Maize is a natural colourant.”
Still, it is hard to disagree with Henry Dimbleby, co-owner of the Leon chain of restaurants (free-range only), when he says: “I actually have never done a taste test. But for me – however well ventilated and however well lit those caged barns are – there is something profoundly unsettling about them.”
I may not have been able to taste the difference in the eggs, but I could sense which hens had a better chance at a happy life.
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