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The battery hen battle

PUBLISHED: 16:32 16 June 2011

Laying hens in battery cages

Laying hens in battery cages

Compassion in World Farming

Jane Howorth, founder of the British Hen Welfare Trust, explains the history behind the campaign to give farmed chickens a better life.

When I talk to people adopting our ex-bats, I am surprised at just how many think that battery hens are no longer kept in cages and haven’t been for some time. Their surprise when I tell them that it is not until next year that small cages are out, but that bigger, replacement ‘enriched’ cages are in, shows me there is still considerable confusion about exactly what is going to happen when the cage ban finally takes place. So let me explain why farmers keep hens as they do, and why it is ultimately consumers who are paving the way for change.

In order to understand what is happening today, it is necessary to understand why battery cages were ever introduced into the UK. Initially of course, all laying hens were farmed outdoors in small flocks with manual egg collecting and extensive management systems. However, this was labour intensive and, in the 1930s, the battery cage system was developed. It was designed predominantly to minimise the risk of disease and improve management efficiency, and became increasingly popular after the Second World War. When the country was poor and cheap, plentiful eggs offered a reliable source of solid, healthy nutrition to the nation.

At this stage farmers were highly respected for their important role in helping the country get back on its feet. Their efforts were supported by the then British Egg Marketing Board with the long-running advertising campaign ‘Go to work on an Egg’, first started in the 1950s, which included the famous Tony Hancock TV advertisement in 1965. The message was clear: that having an egg for breakfast was the best way to start the day. Good for egg sales, but not so good for the hens, as it is fair to point out that at this stage in the history of laying hens, there was little awareness of their well being.

Initially cages were designed for one hen, but then two became the norm and, before long, multi-bird cages were developed. Also, in the 1950s, the benefits of a controlled environment proved that higher production levels could be achieved relatively easily, hence temperature and lighting controls were introduced with mechanised feeding, watering and hygiene inevitably following on. Add to this the genetic modifications made to the birds themselves to enhance egg performance, and you can see that intensive farming was well on its way, leading to some of the huge units we still have today housing tens of thousands of hens in a relatively small area.

The intensive system rolled along successfully until, in the 1970s, Clare Druce, together with her mother, Violet Spalding, set up a welfare organisation called Chickens’ Lib, the first pressure group to cast a spotlight on the rights and wrongs of intensive egg production. Chickens’ Lib succeeded in drawing attention to the millions of laying hens kept out of the sight and minds of consumers. Clare used publicity stunts to draw attention to her campaign, such as putting chickens in mock cages outside Government buildings, ensuring the media were there to observe her. She was soon joined in her crusade by the RSPCA and Compassion in World Farming, both of whom have campaigned for a ban on caged production in the UK.

Predictably, when the spotlight was put onto the egg industry, questioning the ethics of keeping sentient creatures confined in small spaces for a prolonged period, the knock-on effect was that farmers slowly fell from grace. As animal rights activists took over the crusade, and the resulting media attention grew ever more ugly, so the farmers themselves became more reclusive. Sadly, none of this had a positive impact, and the numbers of hens being kept in the cages throughout the UK slowly increased as demand continued to grow for cheap eggs.

However, with welfare firmly on the agenda, the RSPCA introduced the aspirational idea of five basic freedoms for all farm animals, including freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to behave normally and freedom from fear and distress … and very slowly the public began to understand the sentience of laying hens.

It was partly the failure of shock tactics to stem the growth in numbers of caged hens that part inspired the aims of the British Hen Welfare Trust: that is to build a bridge between welfare and commerce, to educate consumers in a positive way and, ultimately, have an influence on the shopping habits of discerning consumers. In 2003, the charity began its re-homing initiative which provided an excellent opportunity to effectively educate consumers about laying hens; each flock adopted spread the message to family, friends, neighbours and work colleagues.

Gradually changing public perception of what is deemed the acceptable treatment of farm animals has brought the concept of welfare firmly to the fore, and meant that farmers not only have to provide food that is safe to eat, but also food that has been ethically produced.

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Gradually changing public perception of what is deemed the acceptable treatment of farm animals has brought the concept of welfare firmly to the fore, and meant that farmers not only have to provide food that is safe to eat, but also food that has been ethically produced

NEXT MONTH: The Cage Ban - there is now an unprecedented opportunity to improve the life of millions of laying birds throughout Europe.

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