Animal Aid

The suffering of farmed poultry

Egg-laying chickens

The poultry industry is divided into two main sectors: egg production and meat production. Laying hens are a strain bred specifically for high volume egg production. The egg laying hens’ wild ancestors - the red jungle fowl who still live in parts of Asia - lay between 10 and 20 eggs a year during their 10-year lifetime. Modern farming’s egg- laying hens have been manipulated through selective breeding techniques to produce up to 30 times more eggs. The average yield per hen during 2006 was a staggering 300 eggs.

hatching chick

From hatchery to death

Hens start their lives inside industrial incubators in giant hatcheries. Newly hatched male chicks are considered useless because they cannot lay eggs and are too scrawny a type of chicken for meat. Consequently, 30 million of them are gassed or shredded alive in giant mincing machines every year. Their female counterparts begin their year-long ordeal of egg production at around 18 weeks.

battery chickens

Battery cages

Approximately 60 per cent of the total UK egg-laying population (30 million birds) are currently kept in battery cages. Row upon row of cages are stacked in tiers inside huge windowless sheds that accommodate a laying flock of up to 50,000 hens.

A typical cage houses four or five birds, each allocated floor space equivalent to less than a standard A4 sheet of paper. They can barely move, let alone stretch their wings. Under natural conditions, hens instinctively display complex behavioural patterns involving dust bathing, foraging, perching and nesting. Close confinement in cages denies them the opportunity to perform any of these activities. Even feed and water supplies are automated, leaving egg laying as the birds' only activity. Deprivation causes chronic suffering and social conflict amongst cage mates, including bullying, feather-pecking and, in extreme cases, cannibalism.

'Enriched' cages

Battery cages are so inhumane that Europe's Agricultural ministers have agreed to end the rearing of egg-laying chickens in battery cages across the EU - but not until 2012.

The regulation states that by 31 December 2012 farmers must have phased out the use of battery cages in favour of free-range farming, barn aviaries or the use of so-called enriched' cages. The latter will have to allow at least 750 sq cm of space per chicken - twice the size of current cages, but a cage is still a cage and once the compulsory nesting area, scratching pad and perch are taken account of, the extra space the hens will have is equivalent to the size of a postcard.

Welfare optimists are predicting that the high cost of providing 'enhanced' and bigger cages mean that they are unlikely to be as popular with the poultry trade as so-called free-range or barn aviaries. The trade itself is convinced that the current battery cage will eventually be reprieved and demonstrates its confidence by continuing to feature the contraptions at trade fairs.

Trauma of laying

Laying eggs is a natural physiological function for hens, although not on anything approaching the scale of the modern commercial bird. And without space or privacy, the mere act of lating in a battery house becomes an ordeal. Battery hens are denied the opportunity to perform pre-laying activity such as nest building. The resulting stress and frustration may result in stereotypical (meaningless, repetitive) behaviour.


The egg industry attempts to prevent the stressed birds from harming one another by amputating the upper part of the beak in a routine mutilation known as de-beaking or beak trimming. Up to half of the upper and sometimes also the lower part of the beak is sliced off using a red-hot blade when the hens are chicks. This causes chronic pain and further hampers any attempt at natural behaviour. This practice is prohibited only under organic standards.

Free-range and organic birds

Free range chickens

The term 'free-range' suggests a handful of chickens scratching around a yard. But modern units usually contain thousands of selectively-bred birds packed together in sheds. Pop holes allow the inhabitants to exit and re-enter when the weather is suitable - providing they can struggle through the crowds of birds blocking the holes. But because of the special stresses associated with such intensive 'free-range' systems (the struggle for territory; the movement from the heated interior to the bug-laden outside world and back again; and the fact that they are the same highly in-bred strains as those raised in the most intensive systems), the birds typically suffer a premature mortality rate of four per cent. This compares with five per cent for standard intensive systems.

The label 'organic' also implies higher welfare standards but it comes with no guarantee that the animals lived free-range. While organic and free-range animals are likely to have had a better quality of life than more intensively reared birds, they can still be housed in groups of up to 3000 and, under organic standards, must be provided with outside access for only a third of their lives. Whether free-range, organic or factory farmed, the birds will be subjected to the same trauma of transport to the killing factory and the same terrifying, boody death.


Physical consequences of confinement include foot deformities - caused mainly by the absence of suitable perches - and severe bone weakness. This is prompted by restrictions on movement and, thus, normal skeletal development.

As a consequence, battery hens are prone to multiple fractures during capture and transportation to the killing plant. Bone weakness is exacerbated by calcium deficiencies, which can lead to osteoporosis. The creation of hundreds of egg shells requires a lot of calcium, and this is leached from the birds' bones. More than 45 per cent of laying hens break a bone at some point during their lives.

Broiler chickens

The poultry industry is divided into two main sectors: egg and meat production. Laying hens are a strain bred specifically for high volume egg production. ‘Broiler’ chickens have been manipulated, through selective breeding techniques, to make them grow at around twice their natural rate. They grow so big and so fast that their legs are unable to support their weight and many collapse. Broilers are slaughtered at just six weeks of age - when they are still immature.

Around 855 million chickens are slaughtered annually in the UK for an industry worth about £2bn per year. Approximately 95 per cent of these birds are intensively farmed inside huge sheds. The remaining 5 per cent are 'free-range' or organic and are slaughtered at 56 days and 80 days respectively.

Intensively farmed broiler birds

Chicks are artificially hatched and then housed in huge, windowless sheds for the duration of their six-week growing period. Often, a modern broiler house holds around 45,000 birds, who are usually kept on a litter bed of wood shavings or chopped straw. As the birds grow, space for individuals decreases. By the end of the growing cycle, each bird has only 0.5 square ft of floor and must push his or her way through a solid mass of other chickens to reach food and water points. Because serious leg problems are endemic, many die in the attempt.

Disease and death

The life span of an unconfined chicken can be up to 10 years, yet broilers are usually slaughtered at 42 days. This is before they reach sexual maturity. They reach adult size so quickly because of a combination of genetic selection and the use of a high protein diet. Antibiotics with growth-promoting properties are also used, although they are formally administered for medicinal reasons.

Crippled during infancy

The combination of accelerated growth rates and unhealthy living conditions accounts for the huge number of birds who die prematurely. They are vulnerable to heart attacks, septicaemia and fatty livers and kidneys. They also suffer a high incidence of deformities, caused by arthritis, together with the stress of carrying so much weight on young bones. Nearly one-third have difficulty in walking or cannot walk at all, despite the fact that many of the weaker birds are 'culled' inside the sheds.

Many broiler chickens also die from ascites: their growth rate is so rapid that their heat, lungs and circulatory system strugg;e to maintain sufficient oxygen levels. This results in breathlessness and distended abdomens caused by a build-up of yellow or bloodstained fluid. Respiratory or heart failure kills one in 20 birds.

Visible indicators of suffering

Broiler houses are not cleaned during the growing cycle, which results in the accumulation of faeces in the litter - which, in turn, causes blistering, ulcerated feet and hock burns. The hock burns are caused by exposure of the skin to high levels of ammonia. It is not uncommon to find visible hock burns on chicken carcasses sold in supermarkets.

Broiler breeders

Breeding birds are the same strain as their progeny. This means that they are ‘selected’ to grow big and fast - and consequently suffer a host of ailments, leading to a very premature death. To keep them alive long enough to reach puberty and then go on to breed, the industry slows down their growth by depriving them of food. In fact, they are kept on between 25 - 50 per cent of what they would eat normally and, according to one major scientific study, are ‘chronically hungry, frustrated and stressed’.

'Free-range' and Organic birds

The term free-range suggests a handful of chickens scratching around a yard. But modern units usually contain thousands of selectively bred birds packed together in sheds. Pop holes allow the inhabitants to exit and re-enter when the weather is suitable. But because of the special stresses associated with a system that pretends to be what it isn't (the constantly shifting struggle amongst the birds for territory, and their movement from heated interior to the bug-laden outside world and back again), the genetically enfeebled birds typically suffer a premature mortality rate of 4 per cent. This compares with the 5 per cent for standard intensive systems.

The label ‘organic’ also implies higher welfare standards but it comes with no guarantee that the animals were free-range. While organic and free- range animals are likely to have had a better quality of life than more intensively reared birds, they will be subjected to the same trauma of transport to the killing factory and the same terrifying, bloody death.


Turkeys aren't just for Christmas anymore - more than 15 million are killed and eaten throughout the year in the UK.

Intensive production

The majority of turkey production is intensive, with up to 25,000 birds kept in large windowless buildings similar to broiler chicken houses.

Farmed chicken

Consequences of intensification

Many of the same welfare problems associated with broiler chicken production are found in the turkey industry. Turkeys have been genetically selected for high meat yields and to fatten in as short a time as possible. They have a natural life span of approximately 10 years, yet they are slaughtered at between 13 - 24 weeks.

In this short period they may grow to nearly twice the size of their predecessors of only 25 years ago. As a consequence, their legs become unable to support the huge weight of their breast muscle or to sustain normal posture and limb movement.

Early mortality - 2.7 million annually

Unhealthy and overcrowded conditions mean that disease amongst commercial turkeys is widespread, resulting in approximately 2.7 million turkeys (or 7% of the total) dying in their sheds every year. Foot and leg deformities, heat stress and starvation caused by the inability of immature birds to find the feed and water troughs are commonplace. Ulcerated feet and hock burns are common - caused by continual contact with litter contaminated by urine and faeces.

Artificial insemination now the norm

The accelerated growth of modern turkeys mean that the males (stags) are now too broad-breasted and heavy (weighing as much as 60lbs) to reproduce naturally. Instead, artificial insemination (AI) is applied, whereby the birds are masturbated by hand and their semen inserted into the females via tubes and catheters. Government literature gives detailed instructions on the correct way to masturbate, or "milk" males.

Aggression and de-beaking

90% of turkeys are kept in near-darkness to discourage the aggression which becomes a problem when so many birds are crammed into a confined space. Debeaking of the sort used on battery hens is also commonly carried out in the first week of the birds' short lives. Research suggests that turkeys suffer chronic pain for 2-6 weeks after de-beaking.

Farmed turkeys

Loading and transportation of poultry

Battery hens, broiler chickens and turkeys endure the same fate at the end of their productive lives. All are subjected to the ordeal of catching, transportation and slaughter. Only the further processing is different: broilers become oven-ready birds for the table, whilst end-of-lay battery hens are made into lower grade poultry products such as pies, soups, chicken stock and baby foods.

The birds are typically grabbed by the feet and thrust into crates, or "modules", before being loaded onto lorries. Many suffer additional injuries at this time and hundreds of chickens can die from a panic-induced crush each time the catching gang enters the shed.

Others die during the journey to the killing plants, often from heart attacks. Injuries and wounds account for the other fatalities. The most common injury is dislocation of the femur (the bone between the hip and the knee). This is almost certainly the result of rough handling by catching teams.


Poultry slaughter methods are highly mechanised and designed to maximise speed rather than to minimise suffering. Chickens are removed from their crates/modules and suspended upside down by their legs on metal shackles. The most common method is for a conveyer to take the birds' heads through an electrically charged water bath, with the current designed to stun and leave them insensible to pain when their throats are cut.

They are killed by severing the main blood vessels in the neck. This is usually done with an automatic knife, with a slaughterman employed as a back-up to slit the throat manually of any birds missed by the machine. Once dead, the birds are immersed in a scalding tank to loosen the feathers before plucking.

Chicks being sorted

Killed whilst fully conscious

There is considerable evidence that the slaughter process is inefficient. Inadequate stunning results in some birds going to the knife and even to the scalding tank alive and possibly fully conscious. Turkey slaughter has been extensively investigated by researchers at the Agricultural and Food Research Council (AFRC), Institute of Food Research, Langford, Bristol. Twenty six per cent of turkeys included in their survey received painful pre-stun shocks (i.e. accidental electric shocks) when birds' wings touched the electrically charged waterbath before their heads did, or when the ramp leading to the bath became electrically live. Worst of all, studies indicated that nationally, every year, around 35,000 turkeys may be entering the scalding tank alive and perhaps conscious.

Deliberate cruelty

Evidence produced in court hearings indicate that deliberate cruelty is sometimes inflicted upon poultry in British slaughterhouses. For example, a 1993 industrial tribunal heard the case of a former employee at a poultry processing plant in Winchester in which 'bagpiping' was described. Slaughterhouse staff squeezed live birds in a game that involved squirting faeces over other employees.

Elsewhere, poultry catchers have told how some of their colleagues kicked, punched, tied up and force-fed chickens and turkeys to relieve the boredom and frustration of their work. (Here's the Catch, Animal Aid 1994.)


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