Many people are choosing free-range eggs and meat because they hope free-range animals have a better life than those kept in intensive factory farms. However there are welfare concerns with all forms of animal farming and the animals are killed far short of their natural lifespan.
Hens bred for egg production
Hens are intelligent, curious and socially complex animals, so it’s important that they be allowed to perform their natural behaviour in an appropriate environment.
Unlike hens confined to battery and colony cages, [link to hen issues page ] free-range hens are given access to the outdoors. While the life of a free-range hen is generally better than that of a caged hen, free-range farming systems still present many welfare concerns.
Because the code of welfare for “layer” hens doesn’t specify basic standards for free-range egg farms, there is no minimum requirement for the size of outdoor areas or the suitability of these outdoor areas for the hens. There is also no specification of the maximum number of hens allowed per flock. Therefore, the quality of life a free-range hen on one farm can be vastly different to that of a hen on another free-range farm.
Free-range hens can, in theory, forage, dust bathe and roam within a restricted outdoor area. However, studies show that many hens in these systems are unable to even gain access to the outdoors due to the high number of birds in the shed and the limited number of “pop” holes the hens can use to access the outdoors.
There may be up to 10,000 hens in a free-range flock. Hens can recognise up to 100 other hens and naturally maintain a pecking order within a flock, however hens kept in huge flocks in commercial systems cannot establish a stable social structure. This causes stress and frustration, which can lead to aggressive behaviour such as feather pecking and cannibalism. To reduce damage to other birds, hens usually have the sensitive tip of their beaks cut off.
Another welfare concern is that all male chicks are killed at one day old, as they are unable to lay eggs.
Most free-range hens will be killed at the same age as caged hens (between 12 and 18 months). The natural lifespan of a hen is around 10 years.
Find out more about different types of egg production with our Guide to Egg Labelling.
How you can help
Incorporate hen-friendly egg alternatives into your diet. Check out our list of egg substitutes.