The suffering of farmed chickens
In the wild, chickens spend their days pecking at the ground for food and dustbathing. But in modern poultry farms the situation is very different.
Chickens reared for meat are called ‘broiler’ chickens. After being hatched inside industrial incubators, over 90 per cent of chicks are housed in giant barns called ‘broiler sheds’, which usually hold around 40,000-50,000 birds at a time. With so many birds, as well as the sound of automated feeding machines and cooling systems running day and night, these sheds are extremely noisy, giving the birds little opportunity to rest.
Illness and injury
Selectively bred to grow unnaturally fast, the chickens quickly fill the available space in the barn. With just 670cm2 per bird, it’s not long before they become more crowded than caged egg-laying hens. Their rapid growth also puts enormous strain on their skeletons, often causing leg deformities that can prevent them from reaching food and water. Many also suffer from ascites – a condition where the heart and lungs are unable to supply the body with enough oxygen – as well as liver and kidney problems.
Burns to the chickens’ legs are common, as the litter becomes saturated with excrement that releases ammonia. The crowded, dirty conditions are a breeding ground for contagious diseases, so many birds are routinely given antibiotic-laced food to keep them alive. Despite this, around six per cent of all chickens reared for meat die in broiler sheds – that’s more than 50 million each year. These are considered to be acceptable and expected financial losses by the farmers.
Most chickens reared for meat will be slaughtered at just six weeks old, having lived just a tiny fraction of their natural lifespan of around six years. Their life in the broiler shed – filled with stress, pain and suffering – will be the only life they ever know. They will never see natural daylight, dust bathe or express many of their natural behaviours.
Breeding birds suffer the same health problems associated with rapid growth as their progeny. To ensure they survive long enough to reach sexual maturity, they are deprived of food to limit their growth. This means that breeding broiler chickens are constantly hungry and stressed.
Free-range chickens – who account for less than five per cent of chicken meat sold in shops – fare little better than their intensively reared counterparts. Rather than roaming freely, they are also kept in tightly packed sheds and may have access to the outside for as little as half their lives, weather permitting. ‘Pop-holes’ allow chickens in and out of the sheds, but crowding often means that only a few birds can actually reach them. Other ‘higher welfare’ systems may rear slower growing chicken varieties and allow them to live for slightly longer, but regardless of how chickens live, they will all meet a terrifying and bloody end at a slaughterhouse.
Read more about our investigations into chicken farming
Egg laying chickens
As with broiler chickens, egg-laying birds are hatched in giant, industrial incubators. Male chicks, who will obviously never lay eggs and are too scrawny a breed for meat production, are regarded by the industry as a worthless by-product and are gassed at just a day old. For the females, a life of captivity and constant egg-laying awaits.
Whilst traditional battery cages were banned across the EU on 1 January 2012, most of these were simply replaced with ‘enriched’ or ‘colony’ cages. These new cages house around 60-80 hens each and are only required to provide 750cm2 per bird – an area barely larger than that of an A4 sheet of paper and only seven per cent more space than traditional battery cages. This still means the chickens are unable to stretch their wings, and even moving around can be difficult. The only ‘enrichment’ provided for the birds is a scratching area – usually a small plastic mat – and a screened off next-box, which is not required to have any nesting or bedding material in it. Whilst the battery cage is officially a thing of the past, millions of hens continue to be kept in barren, crowded cages, with around half of all eggs laid in the UK coming from hens kept under such conditions. Many people who would not intentionally support caged hen farming may unknowingly be buying caged eggs in products like cakes, quiches and fresh pasta.
Barn, free-range and organic eggs
Eggs can also come from hens kept in barns. Whilst they may not be caged, conditions for these birds are still very crowded and often filthy. Like caged hens, most will never see natural daylight, breathe fresh air, dust-bathe or even exercise properly. ‘Free-range’ hens are also kept in barns and may have access to the outside for only half their lives, weather permitting. However crowding often prevents them from reaching the pop-holes that allow them to reach the outside. As they are the same highly in-bred varieties used in more intensive farming, free-range birds are also highly susceptible to the pathogens found outside, causing them to have a high mortality rate. Even on organic farms, which are often considered higher welfare, hens may have access to the outside for as little as a third of their lives and be kept in sheds of up to 3,000 birds, making it impossible to ensure the well-being of every animal.
Beak trimming is common practice on intensive farms to prevent hens from injuring each other in the stressful environment they are kept in. This painful procedure involves slicing off the tip of the bird’s beak without anaesthetic when she is still a chick. But despite this, feather pecking and pulling remain common with many hens displaying bald patches and injuries inflicted by other birds.
The wild ancestors of chickens – red jungle fowl – lay around 10-20 eggs per year. But modern egg-laying varieties are selectively bred to produce an average of 300 eggs per year. Laying an egg almost every day puts a huge strain on a hen’s body. Calcium leaches from the bones to help create eggshells, causing osteoporosis and an increased risk of bone breakages. This is exacerbated in caged hens due to their lack of exercise. Foot problems are also common in egg-laying hens. In the case of free-range and barn hens this is due to the build-up of excrement causing burns, whilst for caged hens the unsuitable flooring can cause foot deformities.
Regardless of how egg-laying hens are raised – whether caged, barn, free-range or organic – when they are no longer able to produce the amount of eggs demanded of them by the farming industry they will simply be slaughtered and their bodies used to make cheap meat products. This typically happens when the hens are just 72 weeks old.
Killing an animal for food can never be regarded as humane. Animals’ lives are just as important to them as ours are to us and none go to the knife willingly. Choosing organic or free-range over factory farmed meat, milk or eggs, continues to cause pain and suffering. The only viable solution to end animal suffering is to adopt an animal-free diet. We can acquire all the nutrients we need from plant-based foods and with more supermarkets and high street shops stocking vegan food, it’s never been easier.Order a FREE Go Vegan pack