The hens that lay our eggs today are smart, quirky and sociable creatures. Descended from jungle fowl, they still possess instincts strongly aligned with seeking shelter in vegetation and roosting up high at night to keep away from predators.
Like other birds and mammals, hens are sentient which means they can feel positive and negative feelings like fear, distress and enjoyment. The science is clear about what hens need to have a better life – and if we all have a better understanding of what these things are, it affects not only the decisions we make at the supermarket but also the way egg farming in Australia can look in the future.
Freedom to express natural behaviours
When it comes to the welfare of farmed animals, one of the most crucial things is ensuring they can express positive natural behaviours. That looks different depending on the species, of course, but for layer hens includes behaviours like nesting, perching, foraging, stretching, wing flapping, exploring, and resting. Animals and birds can suffer immense and chronic stress and frustration if these strong instincts aren’t met.
In particular, nesting (laying eggs in a quiet secluded place, what we call a nest), perching (sitting or resting on a perch), and foraging (including scratching and pecking) are all very important for a hen’s welfare and so any farming system needs to allow for hens to express these behaviours.
The expression of these behaviours leads to better health and welfare, and not fulfilling these strong instincts can lead to frustration and distress as well as other physical welfare problems. That’s why it’s crucial that, in farmed systems, hens have sufficient space and opportunity to carry out these behaviours.
Why it’s time to say bye bye to the battery cage
While the science and community expectations are quite clear about what hens need to have good welfare, sadly, these needs aren’t being met for around half of all layer hens in Australia.
That’s because these hens – over 10 million overall – are still confined to small, barren wire battery cages. These birds stand on a wire floor all day and night, with each hen having less space than a piece of A4 paper. There are many thousands of these cages stacked in sheds – sheds that may contain up to 100,000 birds.
There’s no doubt that hens suffer in barren battery cages – which is why the majority of OECD countries have already taken steps to phase them out.
There are plenty of higher-welfare alternatives to barren battery cages, including cage-free or barn-laid systems, where birds are free to move around and lay their eggs in a nest.
How can I help hens have a better life?
The good news is, there’s a lot individuals can do to help Australian layer hens have a better life.
The RSPCA always encourages consumers to buy cage-free eggs at the supermarket – by buying cage free, you’ll know that your eggs come from hens who aren’t confined to barren battery cages. You can also see a list of companies in Australia that are already using cage-free eggs on our Cage Free & Proud database, and find cafes and restaurants near you serving higher welfare food on our Choose Wisely directory.
However this year, there’s something more you can do to help even more hens in Australia have a better life. That’s because nationally-consistent standards and guideline for poultry are currently under review, and we have the chance to phase out barren battery cages for good.
This is important because even though more and more Australians are choosing cage-free eggs at the supermarket or in cafes, many cage eggs are still used as ingredients in food production.
So the only way to ensure no hen in Australia has to live in a barren battery cage is for state and territory governments to agree to a legislated phase out.
Fortunately, we have the chance to secure a phase out this year – but everyone can play their part by helping send a message to state and territory governments. Visit byebyebatterycages.org.au to find out how you can help.
For more information about layer hen welfare and what hens need to have a better life, visit our Knowledgebase.