Consumer awareness of and demand for higher welfare food is growing and consumers need to be able to make an informed choice about the products they purchase. However, information on the conditions under which animals are farmed is often either lacking or provided through ambiguous labelling. The use of the term ‘free range’ is one such example.
Simply providing access to the outdoors is not a guarantee of good welfare. When looking at the term ‘free range’ in the context of egg production, it is not a simple matter of defining the maximum number of birds on the range area (hens per hectare). For a free-range system to be able to provide for the needs of the bird, there are multiple factors that all need to be considered. They include:
- easy access to the range through sufficient openings in the shed
- sufficient overhead cover and shade on the range that allows birds to feel safe from aerial predators and have shelter from adverse weather
- structures in the range area which allow birds to feel safe
- the size of the range relevant to the number of birds in the shed (recognising that in large flocks, not all birds will go out at the same time)
However, birds spend most of their time inside the shed regardless of access to a range area. Conditions within the shed are just as, if not more, important in terms of hen welfare. This includes:
- access to a nests and perches
- the provision and maintenance of good quality litter to enable foraging, ground-scratching, and dust bathing
- number of birds per square meter of flooring inside the shed (this is usually much higher than the density of birds on the outdoor range)
- good air quality, appropriate levels of lighting and dark periods to allow the birds to rest
- the provision of environmental enrichment and good management.
Through the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme, the RSPCA works closely with farmers committed to producing higher welfare cage-free eggs (i.e. barn or free range).
Hens on RSPCA Approved farms have nests, perches, litter to dust bathe and enough space to move. Whether raised indoors or with access to the outdoors, there’s a focus on providing for layer hens’ behavioural and physical needs.
Some of the specific requirements of the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme Standard for Layer Hens include:
- clean, dry litter to use for dust bathing and foraging
- space to flap their wings, fly, stretch, socialise and avoid aggressive birds
- nests for egg laying
- adequate perch space
- environmental enrichment to enhance the environment and provide them with objects to peck
- constant access to water and nutritious food
- protection from predators and the elements
- clean air, free from high levels of ammonia and with minimal dust levels
- appropriate lighting levels.
Some of the other requirements include:
- A maximum stocking density (that is, a maximum number of birds per square meter of floor space) to avoid overcrowding.
- Stock workers must be well trained and alert to problems.
- Careful records must be kept of management conditions and any health problems, and these records must be made available to the RSPCA.
- Farms must allow regular inspections (at least every 6 months) by RSPCA farm assessors to ensure that the standards are being adhered to.
Find out more about what RSPCA Approved means for hens.