THE assumption that free-range chickens are happier than those kept in cages turns out to be wrong. It seems husbandry has considerably more influence on the welfare of the birds than whether or not they are housed in cages.
This is a very important finding. Animals Australia claims cage hens suffer because they “will never feel the sun on their feathers, beat their wings or experience the life that nature intended.” The World Society for the Protection of Animals says, “a caged hen will never stretch her wings, never go outside, walk or peck the ground. She is prevented from laying eggs in a nest.” All grounds, they claim, for insisting chickens in cages lead a miserable life.
Confirmation that they've got it all wrong comes from a recent study undertaken by scientists at the University of Bristol’s Veterinary College (UK). It involved a comparison of hens in 26 layer flocks housed in conventional cages, furnished cages, barns and free-range. Their physical health, physiology and injurious pecking were monitored and they were all subject to post-mortem analysis at the end of the study.
What the researchers found was that hens in barn systems had the highest prevalence of poor plumage condition, old fractures, emaciation, abnormal egg calcification, and the highest cortisol (a hormonal indicator of stress).
Hens in conventional cages sustained more fractures at depopulation (i.e. when being removed from their cages) than birds in other systems. Vent pecking was most prevalent in free-range flocks, while the lowest prevalence of problems occurred in hens in furnished cages. These birds had fewer fractures, much lower mortality, lower stress levels and less damaging pecking to each other than the birds in any of the other systems, including free-range.
The researchers also found that, while housing systems had an influence on the hens’ physical condition and physiological state, there was a significant level of emaciation, loss of plumage, fractures and evidence of stress across all housing systems. Husbandry deficiencies had far greater impact than the type of housing.
Furnished cages, better known as enriched cages, became compulsory in the last few years. Egg producers have invested millions of dollars to convert their farms from traditional battery cages to the new designs.
Enriched cages provide perches, a nest, some litter, and more space per bird than conventional cages. Barn systems similarly include perches and nest boxes but the hens have freedom and space to move around within a building.
Most free-range hens on commercial farms live in buildings like the barn system, but have access to the outside through openings called 'popholes'. There is fierce debate as to the average amount of space each hen should have, as I have previously discussed.
What the Bristol College researchers concluded was that furnished cages performed better on animal welfare measures than some free-range farms. The birds in these cages had fewer fractures, lower mortality, lower stress levels and did less damaging pecking to each other than the birds on free-range systems.
It has long been known that eggs from free-range farms are more likely to carry harmful bacteria than eggs from cage production systems. There is an overall higher level of bacterial contamination on free range farms and the nesting system leads to more cracked shells.
Similarly, free-range farms are constantly vulnerable to exotic diseases. A recent outbreak of avian influenza in the Young region of NSW, for example, led to the destruction of 450,000 birds. The source of infection was wild ducks, which obviously could not have infected birds kept inside.
It is also well known that hens on free-range farms suffer much higher mortality rates as a result of predation (foxes, hawks, etc), pecking (the pecking order is alive and well among chickens) and injuries (e.g. flapping from perches).
But now we have evidence that the opportunity to exhibit “natural” behaviour is not appreciated. Indeed, free-range hens are actually more stressed. They are happier and more relaxed within the safety and security of a furnished cage.
Other studies undertaken by a team at the University of New England reinforce the point - common assumptions about free-range conditions are largely mythical. Using RFID microchips attached to the legs of hens and monitors on the popholes, they found that while 89 per cent of hens running under free-range conditions used the outdoor range on at least one day across the 51 day period of the study, only 15pc went outside every day and nearly 11pc never went outside at all. For a lot of hens, free-ranging is more theory than reality.
The conclusion from all this will be hard for many people to swallow, not least the activists and large supermarkets seeking to force consumers into switching to free-range eggs.
The welfare of hens is generally no better under free-range conditions. It’s their husbandry that matters. And free range hens are no happier, with many failing to appreciate the opportunity to “feel the sun on their feathers, beat their wings or experience the life that nature intended.”
On top of that, the eggs from free-range farms are not only more expensive but more likely to be contaminated.
If the supermarkets and activist groups are genuinely interested in consumers and animal welfare, as they insist, they should be taking careful note.
David Leyonhjelm has been an agribusiness consultant for 25 year and was recently elected to the Senate for the Liberal Democrats. He may be contacted at email@example.com