The Life of an Organic Hen
PG Wodehouse once quipped that they were the ‘foundation of daily life’; Alfred Hitchcock found them revolting. Love them or hate them, you’d be hard pressed to search Instagram’s #sundaybrunch feed and not find a picture of one. And today, they’re celebrated. Last week was World Egg Day - a day to raise awareness about all the benefits of eggs.
Packed with vitamins D and B12 as well as protein and selenium, eggs are a great source of vitamins and minerals. But rather than give the mighty egg all the credit, we want to give fair dues to the ladies behind the omelette, custard tart and Yorkshire pudding - our humble laying hens. What’s the laying hen industry like in the UK, and how do Soil Association standards stand out? We explore some of the tough questions with Soil Association standards expert Jon Walton.
There’s been a lot of pressure to improve welfare for commercial laying hens over the past decade - images of battery cages and featherless hens spring to mind. What are the typical conditions for non-organic hens?
Jon Walton: In the UK, about half of the non-organic eggs are produced by caged birds. These birds are kept in what are called enriched cages - they provide hens a slightly larger living space than battery cages, which were outlawed in 2012. But the welfare potential of cage systems is really limited. Hens aren’t able to perform all of the behaviours that come naturally to them, like foraging, scratching, or dust bathing. And these birds never see natural daylight, which is heartbreaking.
Free range eggs are increasing in popularity, and account for 44% of eggs sold in the UK. The welfare potential of free range much greater in comparison to caged systems, because birds are able to get outdoors. However, birds are still kept in large flocks, and at higher stocking densities. This can have a negative impact on welfare if hens aren’t able to express their natural behaviors when they need to and at their own pace.
How is life for a Soil Association certified organic hen different from any other system?
Jon Walton: The standards for Soil Association certified organic hens center on our view that the single most important thing we can do for hens is give them a truly free range life. SA certified hens have constant daytime access to the outdoor range as soon as they are old enough to cope with the climate and weather.
The outdoor range provides so many behavioural opportunities for hens. It provides a stimulating environment where they can explore, forage for insects, scratch around in the ground, dust bathe - all the sorts of things they would naturally do in the wild. This sort of enrichment is crucial, because it allows hens to satisfy their basic needs – this means the flock is harmonious and relaxed.
Foraging, for example, is one of those natural things hens absolutely need to do to stay sane. As you might expect, where a hen isn’t able to express her natural behaviour, she becomes frustrated; and like any animal, that’s where behavioural problems start.
Feather pecking is an example of a common behavioural problem which happens when hens don’t have enough stimulation. We want to avoid that situation by providing hens with different avenues for exploration and expressing their natural behaviour.
Getting hens outdoors earlier is crucial for their welfare. One of the ways the Soil Association organic standards differ to any other type of laying hen system is that our farmers must give hens access to the outdoors at 12 weeks – much younger age than any other system. Studies have shown that greater and more extensive range use is associated with lower instances of feather pecking, so we feel it’s really important to give the hens the opportunity to go outside early, as it can take a bit of time for them to get confident enough to poke their heads out and explore. The earlier they get out, the more confident they’ll be to keep going outside to range as adult laying hens.
Another important way that hens can express their natural behaviour is by dust bathing. Like you or I would take a bath to get clean, all hens will want to get down in the dirt and ‘bathe’ in dust and loose material, so they can remove parasites, preen and clean themselves. And it’s really important that they’re not deprived of this. Soil Association farmers must provide hens with a dry litter material - like sawdust, shavings and sand - that allows hens to be able to do this.
What other aspects of the Soil Association standards help give hens a better life?
Jon Walton: Our standards insist on smaller flock sizes. We allow a maximum of 2,000 birds per flock. We believe smaller flock size is important because it makes managing welfare easier, and there our data collected on organic farms supports this. We have found that smaller flocks tend to have better feather cover than larger flocks. So the end result is that flocks have better welfare outcomes.
2,000 hens still sounds like a lot of birds. What does that look like in practice?
Jon Walton: It may sound like a big number, but these are the smallest flock sizes of any UK standard. And it’s a maximum flock size, so a lot of our producers farm fewer birds! In any other organic system, flock size is limited to 3,000 birds, and in free range systems it’s 16,000.
When birds aren’t outdoors, where do they live?
Jon Walton: In the early part of their lives, and at night, hens live in a shed with a fairly standard setup. The central area is raised, with lots of perches. Our standards require all birds to have access to perches which are elevated off the ground. This is really important because birds like to roost naturally at night, and they want to be off the ground. In the middle of the shed’s elevated area, there are also nest boxes, where birds lay their eggs. They are normally provided with curtains - as birds prefer a secluded area. On either side of the nesting area there is a large ‘litter’ area - this is where hens are able to scratch and dust bathe inside. Around the sides of the shed, there are pop holes, which give birds access to the range in the daytime.
In your view, what are biggest challenges for hen welfare?
Jon Walton: One of the biggest challenges is getting birds outdoors. As I mentioned earlier, the sooner you get birds used to the outdoors the more likely they will become accustomed to their surroundings and start exploring. And this isn’t always easy! Stipulating that farmers must give their birds access to the outdoors early is one thing, but you also have to create an environment that is enticing to the bird for it to happen in practice. So our standards require ranges to be covered in vegetation that imitates the bird’s natural environment, for example trees and areas of tall grass. We’re also reviewing our standards to include more ways to encourage more birds outdoors. We’re consulting on proposals which will require farmers to provide more natural cover on the range. This could be in the form of trees, or it could be cover crops like oats or kale - essentially anything that provides some overhead cover and enrichment. This really helps birds feel more secure. The modern laying hen has been selected from jungle fowl, and as the name suggests, they’ve evolved in a woodland environment, where there is lots of cover and trees around. So our goal is for our new standard to go further than the current standard in providing birds with what they want and need. We think this really will help encourage birds out onto the range, and ultimately lead to even better welfare.
Standards for Soil Association certified organic laying hens have been given the gold standard by Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) – and they are the highest of any farming system in the UK. Choosing organic is one easy way to make sure the eggs you buy comes from hens that have had access to the outdoors, and opting for higher welfare can help make a difference to the farmers, the animals and the environment. Learn more about Soil Association standards for laying hens, and about the Soil Association’s animal welfare standards.
All photos courtesy of Jess Stokes
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