There is a common misconception that free range eggs involve hens roaming outside, happy and free. Welfare standards can vary wildly between different free range producers, from small-scale egg farmers with hens in a field to industrial producers who adhere to the minimum standards.
Minimum free range standards still allow hens to be kept in vast, multi-tiered sheds with 16,000 or more other birds, and rarely see daylight. Under EU legislation, nine ‘free-range’ birds can occupy one square metre of floor space. That might be about twice as much room as a battery hen, but it’s still like 14 human adults living in a one-room flat.
While hens have to be given some kind of daytime access to the outside, with such confined spaces only very few birds will ever actually make it out the door. Even once there, the outside may not be the rural idyll you imagine. It can be a barren space with little or no vegetation.
The same story is seen for many other animals in the farming system. Animal Aid says, “the majority of farmed pigs are often forced to live standing and lying in their own waste.” Sows are often also kept in ‘farrowing crates’ for about a month around the time they give birth – metal and concrete cages just a few inches larger than the sow. 23% of farms also keep some or all dairy cows inside year-round, up from 16% in 2014. Factory farmed fish can also be kept in densely packed nets, where some end up riddled with lice and treated with strong chemicals.
These animals can be in dirty conditions, without adequate straw, and have nothing to interact or play with. Hens kept inside are given ‘enrichments’ (like pecking blocks and plastic toys) to help them express their natural behaviours – which speaks volumes about the unnatural conditions they are kept in.
2. Farm animals mutilated
Many animals are mutilated in order to ‘solve’ problems created by the industry.
Piglets can be taken from their mother at a young age and put into shared pens. Desperately trying to find their mother’s milk, they can try and suckle the other piglets or bite their tails. Some farms will amputate part of the piglets’ tails and clip their pointed side-teeth to avoid the problem. The amputation can be painful and result in infections. It’s banned in the UK, but campaigners say it is still “commonplace”.
Likewise, hens, denied outside space for foraging, sometimes peck one another’s feathers. To avoid this, chicks have their beaks trimmed without anaesthetic. In 2011, the UK banned one of the worst forms of beak trimming, with a blade, although it is still legal in the US.
Similarly, virtually all dairy cows are born with horns, which are removed through a painful procedure so that they are less likely to cause injury and require less space in pens and feeders.
Lambs also face mutilations. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) states that castration and tail docking of lambs “should not be undertaken without strong justification", however, the practices are still common. Lambs' tails are docked with a knife, hot iron or tight ring. Male lambs are castrated using a tight ring, clamp or surgery, usually without anaesthetic.
3. Farm animals are continually impregnated and separated from their offspring
For both milk and meat production, female animals are impregnated usually at a much much faster rate than is natural for their bodies.
Animals of any species can only supply continuous milk if they are continually pregnant. On a dairy farm, a cow is restrained, and a farmer puts their arm into the cow and injects a gun full of semen into her cervix. A few months after giving birth she will be impregnated again, then be milked throughout most of her pregnancy. A few months after the next birth she will be impregnated again, and so on.
Shortly after birth, dairy calves are separated from their mothers so that the milk the calf would otherwise consume can be sold. Male calves usually end up as meat. Female calves usually become dairy cows like their mother. The process causes huge distress to both calf and mother.
Pigs face a similar cycle. Pigs would naturally feed their piglets for two or three months before weaning. Yet, piglets are usually taken away from their mother at three to four weeks so she can be impregnated again. This separation causes stress to both of them, but it also makes the mother come into season quicker than she otherwise naturally would, so she can have another litter again.
For animal rights activists, this use of animal’s reproductive systems epitomises the way in which we exploit animals’ bodies.