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Barren battery cages: the key terms, explained

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  • RSPCA Australia
  • Friday, 9 July 2021

If you’ve been reading our blog, subscribing to our newsletters, or following us on social for a while, you’ll already know we’ve long been concerned about the welfare of Australian layer hens being kept in barren battery cages. 


For example, we’ve shown you a timeline of our work to free hens from these barren battery cages, and explained why 2021 can be the year we finally succeed.


Over the coming weeks and months, you’ll be hearing a lot more from us again on this issue, as we ramp up our push to say bye bye to barren battery cages.


We know that Australians overwhelmingly care about animal welfare, want to see an end to battery cages, and want to buy higher welfare food when they go to the supermarket. But what do all the terms mean, and why are our sights set on battery cages in particular? Here’s a summary of some of the key terms you’ll be hearing about more than ever in the next few months. 


It might seem obvious, but firstly it’s important to take a look at the animals themselves! A layer hen is a breed of chicken bred to lay eggs - a different breed to chickens that produce meat. They’re brown in colour with a red comb. 


For these smart, quirky and inquisitive creatures to have good welfare they need to be able to express normal behaviours like nesting (laying their eggs in a quiet secluded place, what we call a nest), perching (sitting or resting on a perch), and foraging (which includes scratching and pecking for food). 


battery cage is a small, barren wire cage that’s used to house egg-laying hens. It’s about 40cm tall, and there are 4-7 hens confined to each cage. They stand on a 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. (The cages are called ‘battery cages’ because the stacks of cages resemble the cells of a battery unit). 


We call them barren battery cages because they’re just that - barren. Hens in these cages experience extreme confinement and behavioural restriction, without the ability to perch, nest or forage. 


You might hear some people talking about conventional cages. A so-called ‘conventional cage’ is a term used by the egg industry to describe these small, barren wire cages. In the early 2000s, regulations were changed to allow each layer hen a hundred square centimetres of extra space in barren battery cages - that's about the size of an iPhone! The egg industry took the opportuntiy to re-brand theses cages as ‘conventional’, but a ‘conventional cage’ is still no different in any meaningful way to a barren battery cage, and is just as bad for the hen’s welfare. 

furnished cage, or enriched cage, is a cage that includes opportunities for hens to express natural behaviours, like a perch, nest area, scratch pad, and more space per bird. They’re not currently used in Australia at any large scale. They obviously offer some benefits over more crowded and barren battery cages, but because they don’t allow hens to perform their full range of natural behaviours, the RSPCA believes the needs and welfare of layer hens are best met in a well-managed cage-free system.  


Cage-free, or barn-laid systems consist of large sheds where birds are free to move around, and lay their eggs in a nest.  


free-range system is one where hens have access to an outdoor area during the day. At night, large flocks of free-range hens are kept in sheds or barns to keep them safe from predators. 

What about the eggs themselves? A whole egg or shell egg is an egg sold in its natural state, such as in a carton in a supermarket or served whole in restaurants or cafes. This is to distinguish from eggs as ingredients, such as in baked goods, sauces and ready-made meals.  


This year, we have a once-in-20-year opportunity to put an end date on barren battery cages. You can help us by taking action and helping send a message that you want to say bye bye to battery cages. 




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