Poultry farming


Laying hens, free range and bird flu

On this page:

  • Poultry Farming
  • Trends in intensive systems for housing laying hens in the UK
  • Alternatives to caged birds just as flawed
  • Broiler chickens
  • Issues on Slaughter Methods
  • Avian Influenza-Not Just a Bad Cold?
  • Sources and Further reading


    Poultry Farming

    In March this year, the Compassion in World Farming Trust (CIWF) hosted a conference on farm animal sentience to discuss animal welfare within the intensive dairy and meat industry. Birds such as chickens, ducks, turkeys and ostriches are among those intensively farmed and subjected to miserable conditions and diseases from birth to slaughter.

    In 2002 the UK government reviewed the laying hen industry, reacting to forty years of animal welfare protests and campaigning. Subsequently, the then Agricultural Minister, Elliot Morley, said a European Union directive which had banned cages smaller than an A4 size piece of paper would become law in Britain earlier than the 2012 deadline recommended by Brussels.

    Animal welfare organizations throughout Europe have been battling to put an end to the cruelties of the poultry industry. During the 1960s forty per cent of UK egg production used Deep litter systems, where the birds were kept in loose flocks on the floor covered with deep-litter in large warehouses. A decade later, this method was phased out and replaced with the tier caged battery system as this was seen as more economically productive; caged hens would eat less food and lay more eggs and require less labour than those housed on litter.

    Trends in intensive systems for housing laying hens in the UK

    Egg production was once based on small flocks kept on mixed farms alongside other livestock. As farming became more specialized the number of birds in captivity increased and semi-intensive systems emerged where birds were kept in houses with outdoor access. The demand for more intensive systems arose less than fifty years ago. In 1925 the average egg consumption per person was 125 eggs a year, today the average is 300 eggs per person. In their natural habitat wild jungle fowl have a laying cycle of between 18 and 20 eggs a year.

    System of Housing 1960 1970 1980 1990 1995 2000 2004
    Free Ranging 40 5 2 8 12 *20 *27
    Laying 20 80 96 90 84 *72.5 *66
    Deep Litter 40 15 2 2 4 *7.5 *7

    Taken to include all non-cage intensive systems (Statiistics in grey font source:The UFAW Farm Handbook).* The figures for 2000-04 are sourced from DEFRA statistics

    The poultry industry is one of the most wasteful and cruel intensive farming industries. Millions of male chicks are killed with carbon dioxide gas in large plastic dustbins at just a few days old because they are of no commercial interest for the meat industry. According to the Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) the recycled remains of unwanted male chicks, growth hormones, yolk, colourant and other additives end up as feed for the hens.


    Day old chicks that have been gassed with pure CO2, (Source: FAWN)

    There are over five billion hen layers worldwide producing around 50 million tonnes of eggs per annum and Britain has 24+ million hens crammed into small cages. The cages are arranged in rows of three to six tiers in sheds containing up to 30,000 or more birds, where ventilation, heating and lighting are automatically controlled, and the birds are exposed to artificial light for 17 hours a day to maximize their egg laying cycle.

    Light is a primary influence on the laying hen, and is absorbed through the thin skull to the hypothalamus, in addition to through the retinal route. Intense artificial light exposure increases bird activities and can lead to aggressive behaviour such as cannibalism, feather plucking and high mortality. Hens are confined into the battery system at 18 to 20 weeks of age.

    The egg producing industries' futile attempts at introducing enriched cages under recent EU law now stippulates allowance of 550cm2 ( just slightly more than an A4 sized sheet of paper), not enough space for a hen to stretch its wings.

    In a natural environment hens would be able to express their instinctive behaviour of dust-bathing, running, flapping their wings and preening, exploration of their environment by pecking at things to feed and satisfy their curiosity, and natural nesting behaviour.

    In the abnormal environment of confinement hens resort to feather plucking and pecking at other hens with little else to stimulate them. Therefore, it is standard procedure under requirements set out in the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002 (Schedule 3d, paragraphs 8 and 9) to de-beak hens preferably at 5 to 10 days old, but it is carried out on mature birds and causes more stress and chronic pain. Beak trimming is done with a hotwire or a guillotine type method of cutting by pushing the beak into a hole in a metal plate, and a red-hot blade then slides down behind the hole to cauterize the wounded tip of the beak. This consequently leaves the birds in long-term pain. Beak trimming should be carried out by skilled operators and adhere to strict guidelines in the Veterinary Surgery (Exemptions) Order 1962. Representatives from the industry and animal welfare groups are working with Defra on an action plan to ban beak trimming without compromising bird welfare, although a review is not due till 31st December 2010.

    Agricultural and Food Research Council 1992 found that fifty percent of battery hens suffer from broken and brittle bones from the cramped conditions and lack of exercise. They also suffer from broken bones during live transportation to slaughter units. Transportation of birds is a major concern as there is often a reduction of welfare at this time of farmed animals' lives. The animals are subjected to all kinds of stress during transportation, including thermal micro-environment, water and food deprivation, vibration of moving vehicle and space restrictions. Consequentially, birds in transit are subject to a range of pathologies. When hens have reached 72 weeks of age, they can no longer produce eggs and are used as low-grade chicken meat for human consumption in baby food products, soups, pies and other foodstuffs, and the bones and meat scrap are used for pet food.

    Alternatives to caged birds just as flawed

    Free range production accounts for 26 percent of the egg production market. When there are a hundred birds or more kept together there is no natural pecking order, in their natural habitat wild jungle fowl tend to roam in smaller groups and the female brooding hen or the dominant male cockerel will control and suppress aggressive behaviour among the other birds within small flocks, maintaining a balanced social structure. Free range birds have no social stability in large numbers, as it is not in their natural evolved behaviour to be in a large flock of a hundred birds or more, therefore they become aggressive, and cannibalism and feather plucking occurs so that beak trimming is required. In free range houses, exits are provided to the outside, though these are not often used because the more aggressive birds occupy them. Under EU specifications in free-range systems there should be no more than nine hens per square meter indoors and not more than 2,500 per hectare of space outside. The birds are subject to disease and predation from foxes, mink, dogs and birds of prey. Farmers will shoot predators such as foxes on site. Predators can cause panic in a flock leading to stress and outbreaks of feather peaking, rodent infestation can also lead to panic and feather plucking in free range systems. Diseases such as Red Mite is a serious problem in free range systems requiring close monitoring of the flock, infestation will also induce feather pecking.

    Aggression and cannibalism also occurs in percheries, because birds are usually kept in large flocks. They are confined indoors and with nine birds per square metre, hens may get injured crashing into one another in this restricted space while moving from perch to perch .

    The Welfare of Hens in Free Range Systems: Action on Animal. Defra:Cage sizes:From Statutory Instrument 2000 No. 1870 The Welfare of Farmed Animal (England) Regulations 2000.

    Office of Public Sector Information

    (i) 1000 cm2 where one hen is kept in a cage;
    (ii) 750 cm2 where two hens are kept in the cage;
    (iii) 550 cm2 where three hens are kept in the cage;
    (iv) 450 cm2 where four or more hens are kept in the cage;

    Broiler chickens

    Annually, more than 20 million chickens are killed for human consumption worldwide. In Britain we rear between 800 and 900 million broiler hens for slaughter a year and the birds are crammed into vast warehouses.

    Broilers have been selectively bred to mature fast and growth hormones are added to their feed, resulting in birds being deformed as their muscles grow more rapidly than their skeletons can form, so the birds' legs are unable to support the weight of their body. Most birds become lame and many immobile throughout their short lives.


    6 Week Old Broiler Chicks (Source: FAWN)

    Broilers are usually slaughtered at 42 days of age, while thirty years ago they took twice as long to reach the desired weight of a modern broiler ready to be slaughtered. Broilers are kept in windowless houses on litter systems and are forced to sit on their own excrement, suffering burns and blisters to their flesh and feet and eye blindness from the ammonia.

    Blisters from ammonia (Source: FAWN)

    Issues on Slaughter Methods

    In a new United Poultry Concern press release, poultry expert Dr. Mohan Raj (University of Bristol in England), said that gaseous stun/kill system, known as "Controlled Atmosphere Stunning" ( by using inert argon and nitrogen gas), is said to eliminate or greatly reduce the suffering of birds at point of slaughter, more typical methods are electrical stunning. PETA (Peaple for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) announced that chicken suppliers to McDonalds and KFC are scalded to death while the birds are still conscious because typical methods of stunning fail to work. Other forms of gasing using pure CO2 causes a painfully slow death of suffocation. Mcdonalds have recently claimed, it is researching more humane methods to slaughter chickens, such as using Controlled Atmosphere Killing a method used by some European suppliers.

    Avian Influenza-Not Just a Bad Cold?

    Avian flu is a product of intensive poultry farming practices in the East; In Southeast Asia, poultry farmers are encouraged (through financial gain) to produce meat on a large scale, which is exported to satisfy a high demand from American and European consumers. It is cheaper for western fast food manufacturers and poultry meat suppliers to import from the east. The intense output places an obvious strain on the conditions these birds are kept in. Millions of birds have died from Avian influenza (H51N1) or have been culled if infected, they are usually burned or buried alive, for quick disposal and to avoid contamination. The EU is beginning to see the possible dangers that a spread of the infection may cause.

    Ducks at Hanoi Market ( Source: Reuters)

    Scientists are now saying that the H51N1 Bird Flu virus is showing signs of evolving and mutating to become transmitted from human to human without consumption of infected poultry meat. The WHO continue to announce new cases of the human bird flu in Vietnam and new cases have emerged again in Thailand. In Indonesia a pig has been certified to have bird flu and investigations are yet to be made as to how the pig was infected. Vietnam's City of Ho Chi Minh have just annouced there will be a three month ban from November this year on raising poultry.

    Measures are needed to make sure that bird flu is not a disease that will take hold of Southeast Asia, mutating to a human strain and causing a possible pandemic. The virus has already been transferred to pigs, cats and goats, humans have so far only been infected whilst being in close proximity to infected birds. There is no treatment for combating infection and humans die very quickly after contracting the virus.

    Animal welfare issues need to be addressed regarding the culling of infected birds and the decision to contain "free range" animals within buildings whilst the pandemic is progressing throughout Asia and Europe.


    Sources and Further reading:

    Defra Egg Statitistics for July 2005

    Egg Labelling information provided by CIWF (Compassion in World Farming).

    Statutory Instrument 2002 No. 1646
    The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2002

    DEFRA: Action on animal health and welfare: The welfare of hens in free range systems.

    DEFRA : Codes of Recommendation for the welfare of livestock

    DEFRA Website: Welfare of meat chickens: Welfare Standards

    DEFRA Website: A guide to the practical management of feather pecking and cannibalism in free range laying hens.

    DEFRA Website: Egg Market Regulations.

    DEFRA Website: Codes of Recommendations for the welfare of livestock: Ducks

    DEFRA Website: Eggs and Poultry- Legislation in Poultry Sector

    DEFRA Website: Codes of Recommendation for the welfare of livestock: Turkeys

    DEFRA Website: Codes of recommendation for the welfare of livestock: Meat chickens and breeding chickens.

    DEFRA Website: Poultry Litter Management: Litter Associated Conditions

    DEFRA Website: Farm animal welfare

    DEFRA Report: Poultry and Poultry Meat Statistics

    UK Agricultural Atlas for livestock and crops

    ( also available as reports).
    Defra Publications
    Admail 6000
    SW1A 2XX

    FAWC (Farm Animal Welfare Council) Report on Welfare of Laying Hens

    Statutory Instrument 1995 No. 731
    The Welfare of Animals ( Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995
    Schedule 7/Regulations 11/ Killing Pigs and Birds by Exposure to Gas Mixtures

    WPSA UK Branch. 27th Poultry Science Symposium,
    Welfare of the Laying Hen 17th -20th July 2003 -Abstracts of Presentations and Posters- at the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Bristol, UK

    UFAW. Ed. Ewbank, R., Kim-Madslien, F, Hart, C.B.,4th Ed.1999. Management and Welfare of Farm Animals-The UFAW Farm Handbook.


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