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 common system in the global 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 routinely 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 (it’s stretching the meaning of the word by calling 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 routinely 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 maceration (machine-crushing), by gassing, or by suffocation. The adult hens are subjected to constant, controlled light to encourage greater egg production. They are unceremoniously slaughtered at the end of their laying cycle, their reward for a lifetime of producing eggs.
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
Inspection is hugely problematic when there are several tiers of crowded cages.
Consequently, injured birds housed in large sheds can often die unnoticed.
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.