Laying Hens

Chickens are highly social birds. They live together in a flock and within a distinct hierarchy, commonly referred to as a pecking order.

In the wild, chickens will spend much of their time scratching the ground in their search for insects and seeds. When a cockerel finds food, he often calls the rest of the flock to come and eat. He does this by clucking in a high pitch and picking up and dropping the food. Mother hens also exhibit this behaviour in summoning their chicks.

A Change of Heart

Caged Hen Experiences Freedom For The First Time..
After years in a tiny battery cage, this rescued hen can finally start living!

Wild chickens cover a lot of ground during the day. To avoid potential predators, they use trees and vegetation to maintain a low-visibility profile as they go about their daily business.

The wild ancestor of today’s chicken, the red junglefowl, produces around a dozen eggs each year. Through decades of selective breeding, laying hens have been bred to produce around 300 eggs a year. Such intense egg production causes calcium deficiency and can result in high levels of osteoporosis (brittle bones) and fractures.

The vast majority of the 50 billion chickens reared each year for their eggs and for their flesh never see the light of day. Their lives could not be further removed from that of their wild cousins.

The common system used in the egg production industry is the barren battery cage (banned throughout the EU in 2012). The birds are kept in small, wire cages, up to nine in a cage, the cages running along beside each other for the length of a 100 or 200-metre shed, and stacked on top of each other in a system which is designed to cram as many birds as possible into a rectangular space.

These barren battery cages afford each bird the equivalent of an A4 page to stand on. The hens cannot open their wings. Their beaks are cauterised to prevent self-harm and mutilation of other birds, with whom they are continuously fighting, due to the intensely stressful environment. They defecate through the sloping wire mesh floors and their feet become deformed as a result of standing on such an uncomfortable and unnatural surface for their entire lives. Most sheds contain tens of thousands of hens, and the largest sheds can ‘accommodate’ more than a hundred thousand birds. The buildings are artificially lit and ventilated. Caged hens do not leave their cages until they are taken to slaughter.

The current EU system, the so-called ‘Enriched Cage’, is only marginally larger than the old system. The enriched cages do allow hens to express more of their natural behaviours, such as perching, dustbathing, and nesting. The nest – if you can call it a nest – consists of a plastic sheet hanging from the top of the cage, which creates a more secluded area for egg laying.

In Enriched Cages, the hens still have their beaks cauterised. The perches are very low (just a few inches from the floor of the cage) so hens cannot fly up to a high perch to be safe from feather pecking. The system of sorting out the male from the female chicks at birth continues, and the males are still killed in massive numbers, either by crushing, by gassing, or by suffocation. The adult hens are still subjected to constant, controlled light to encourage greater egg production. They are still unceremoniously slaughtered at the end of their laying cycle, their reward for a lifetime of producing eggs.

Enriched Cages are not a solution. The solution is to ban cages, full stop. Luxembourg has banned the use of enriched cages for laying hens, and Austria and Germany are phasing them out.

Almost all hens, regardless of whether they are housed in the barren battery cage or the enriched cage, will continue to suffer from severe mineral and calcium depletion and many will either die from exhaustion in their cages or will suffer from broken bones as their brittle bodies are stuffed into crates to be transported to the slaughterhouse.

Inspection is problematic when there are several tiers of crowded cages. Consequently, injured birds housed in large sheds can often die unnoticed.

A survey by the European Food Safety Authority concluded that eggs produced in cages are more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella than those produced in cage-free systems.


Free-range systems are the most popular of the non-cage alternatives. Hens are housed in barns or aviaries and they have constant daytime access to an outside range with vegetation. In barn systems, hens are kept in sheds using the floor space only, but those with several levels of platforms or perches are called aviaries.

In Europe, the maximum stocking density is 9 hens per square metre. This allows the hens much greater freedom of movement than is possible in cage systems. They can stretch, flap their wings and fly. They can also perform other natural behaviours such as pecking, scratching and laying their eggs in a nest.

Organic systems also provide free-range access. Organic farms certified by the Soil Association, must provide additional space; each hen has a minimum of 10 square metres of outside space, and do not allow beak trimming. EU organic regulations limit stocking density inside the shed to 6 birds per square metre.


Free Range usually means that the birds have access to the outdoors. If it’s a small operation, that’s probably fine, however if it’s a bigger, commercial operation, the access may be very limited, and the quality of the outdoor environment can be completely inadequate.


Currently, there are approximately 3 million laying hens in Ireland, and about 1.9 million of these (54%) are caged. Under current EU legislation, all shell eggs must be labelled to show where the hens have been kept (in barns, cages, free range or organic farms). Egg producers and retailers are required to label their egg packaging which is displayed on the inside of all egg cartons. How a hen has lived and laid her eggs must be stamped. The number 3 is for caged hens, 2 is for barn-raised, 1 is for free range, and 0 is for organic.

The Irish government’s current animal welfare strategy states that all farmed animals should have a good quality of life and a life worth living. Clearly, housing hens in cages makes a mockery of this strategy.


The number of chickens worldwide has more than doubled since 1990. An estimated 50 billion chickens are slaughtered for food every year – a figure that excludes male chicks and unproductive hens killed in egg production.


That’s 136,986,300 every day;
5,707,760 every hour;
95,130 every minute;
1,585 every second.

In the time it takes most people to say ‘fifty billion sentient chickens’, between 3,000 and 4,000 chickens will have been killed. This is industrial-scale killing and is, frankly, a mind-blowing statistic. Every single one of these 50 billion birds is an individual animal, with its own unique DNA, its own unique personality.


The End the Cage Age initiative is the single biggest and most collaborative animal welfare campaign to be launched in this generation. Over 140 animal welfare organisations across Europe are participating.