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In March 2016, Consumer Affairs Ministers agreed to the introduction of an information standard requiring eggs labelled as 'free range' to have been laid by hens with ‘meaningful and regular access’ to the outdoors and with a maximum outdoor stocking density of 10,000 hens per hectare. The information standard will also require producers to prominently disclose the outdoor stocking density of hens laying free-range eggs, allowing consumers to easily compare the practices of different egg producers.
Accreditation bodies in Australia and overseas specify maximum densities from 750 to 2,500 birds per hectare. The EU and New Zealand legal maximum is 2,500 birds per hectare. The Australian legal maximum density is much higher than in the rest of the world.
Peer-reviewed scientific research is needed to understand the bird welfare implications of increasing stocking density and, indeed, what an appropriate maximum stocking density might be.
‘Free range’ means nothing if hens are not going outside – hens must be provided with unimpeded access to an attractive range area with plenty of overhead cover and vertical structures to provide shade and protection from aerial predators. The quality of the outdoor area affects access – providing areas of palatable vegetation, trees, shrubs, fallen tree trunks, etc. and ensuring the area is not muddy or full of puddles will increase interest and encourage use of the outdoor area. Regularly rotating the outdoor area will help maintain its attractiveness as well as reduce parasite burden.
Range quality and access is just as important as space allowance on the range and should not be forgotten.