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A guide to UK egg production

Most of the people who rehome our hens can look forward to an egg or two if their hens continue to lay, but we know many of you are still intrigued about commercial egg production. 

Even if your hens are popping out a daily egg for you to enjoy, there is still intrigue surrounding the way eggs are produced, and what the different systems mean for hen welfare. 

The mystery that often surrounds intensive farming even means we still get asked whether hens are still kept in cages, with many people thinking they have been banned altogether. 

Sadly that isn’t true just yet, so here’s our complete guide to egg production, and what it means for the hens who lay them. 

Egg production explained

In the UK, commercial hens are farmed under four different egg production systems: 

Colony or enriched cages 

Colony or enriched cages replaced the old barren battery cage system in 2012. On average a ‘colony’ cage holds 80 hens and has a screened-off area for laying, a scratch mat and low perches. Hens don’t leave the cage until they go to slaughter. 

Barn 

Barn hens live in large flocks within a barn environment, there is no access outside. The hens have a solid (usually earth) floor and access to nest boxes. 

Free-range 

Free-range hens have access to the outside world, the chance to scratch for bugs, feel the sun or rain on their backs and exercise freely. Well managed free-range, organic free-range and multi-tier free-range systems allow hens to exhibit more natural behaviour. 

Organic 

Organic systems offer the best welfare for laying hens. They are always free-range and must be offered an organically produced diet and and range on organic land. Hens must have nest boxes and perches and there must be no more than six hens per square metre of useable area. 

So what’s the situation with caged hens? 

Many UK retailers have pledged to go ‘cage-free’ by 2025, with many having already met that commitment, taking millions of hens out of cages already; however, there is much more to be done. It’s important to note that this cage-free pledge in many cases only applies to whole shell eggs, and does not include eggs used as an ingredient. 

It’s therefore important to check food labels to ensure the products you buy, such as cake, mayonnaise and sauces, only use free-range eggs. 

Ex-commercial hens 

The term ‘ex-commercial hen’ is a generic term used to describe hens from a commercial unit; it does not give any information regarding the system in which the bird was kept however and this should be clarified on adoption. 

When the BHWT started, the aim was to encourage growth in the demand for free-range eggs (and therefore increase the number of free-range hens). Specifically, we want to see an increase in small flocks of free-range hens as these usually offer the highest welfare. 

Every time we take birds from a caged unit, we know we often leave behind thousands that will never enjoy the lifestyle of a free-range hen. That is why the charity is focused on the hens we leave behind as well as those lucky enough to be saved from slaughter; we want every hen to enjoy the chance to live a high-quality free-range life. 

Until we reach our goal, we will continue to focus our main efforts on taking hens out of cages in order to give the less ‘privileged’ birds a chance to experience a free-range retirement. We will still continue to help barn and free-range hens where we can, and will always ensure our adopters know which system the hens have come from. 

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