So what has life been like for the hens you re-home? Well, we have all heard about the dreaded battery cage that typically houses 4 hens, giving them about the space of an A4 sheet of paper but just like those rather strange breeds of cat or dog you see from time to time, battery hens are no different, in that they too have been bred for a specific purpose – not for looks this time but for egg production of course.
Since the Second World War, millions of pounds has been spent in research and development, creating hens that would lay large numbers of eggs during the first year of their lives. For the US market, white eggs are preferred and the white Leghorn hen is the preferred choice but in the UK, brown eggs are preferred and it is the hybrid hen that is used, originally created by crossing certain strains of Rhode Island Red cockerels with Light Sussex hens.
To be commercially profitable, hens are housed around 15 to 18 weeks old and are laying around 20 weeks old. Battery Hen pullets are often fed high protein diets of around 18 or 19% crude protein for a period after the birds have been housed to boost their growth and egg size as quickly as possible. But pushing the birds like this with higher protein often results in poor shell quality later on in their lives. Normal layers diets that we feed our backyard hens contain about 16% protein.
Hens stop laying in the winter when the nights draw in and there are fewer hours of daylight which reduces the number of eggs a hen lays over a year. Commercially, even a few less eggs per year can make a huge difference when you are housing 20’000 hens or more on a farm. Hens will lay when the pituitary gland inside the eye produces a hormone that stimulates their ovaries to release eggs into the oviduct. This is nature’s way of ensuring that birds lay their eggs in the spring when their offspring will have the warmer summer months to grow up and when food is in plentiful supply. In order to keep a hen laying during its time in the battery, hens are kept under artificial lighting of typically 18 hours per day.
The space that each hen has in her cage is tiny and you can see from the photographs how cramped it is. Hens stand on a wire floor so they cannot scratch which as you will realise if you keep chickens is one of the most natural behaviours for a hen (yes, even in flower beds!). Dust baths, exercise and foraging are all impossible for these girls. Pecking one another out of boredom causing feather loss and injury is common, as are overgrown nails and beaks that cannot be worn down like their free range counterparts.
Sometimes birds are de-beaked when they are young: this is done using a heat gun that takes the point off the top half of the beak to minimise the damage to other hens.
Thankfully, the UK banned these conventional cages in 2012, opting for a slightly improved ‘enriched’ cage that does allow hens to roost, a nest to lay in and a little more space, although at the time of writing, there are still many, many other countries keeping hens in the conventional cages and these eggs are often incorporated into food products for sale in the UK.
On average, battery hens need to produce in excess of 320 eggs during their first laying year or 72 weeks of life. Feed intake, production and egg size are all monitored weekly and after 72 weeks or so, they are usually sold off to be used in pet food. It’s at this point that the re-homers can come in and buy the battery hens just before the majority get sold on, hopefully to end up being re-homed for a free range retirement.