Welfare issues affecting free-range laying hens

Dana Campbell, Sarah Lambton, Isabelle Ruhnke, Claire Weeks

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter in a book


The poultry industry is an example of what can be achieved through application of science. Modern laying hens kept in houses of several thousand birds can lay almost an egg a day, producing some 20 kg of eggs from around 44 kg of carefully formulated compound feed. Compare this with the seasonal production of a few dozen eggs from small flocks in mobile housing and fed farmyard scraps that was the norm until the 1950s. Advances in scientific understanding of genetics, nutrition, light and thermal environment have all been applied, leading to an incredible increase in productivity. In terms of feed conversion efficiency, egg production is among the most efficient of animal-derived foods
for humans. In early laying hen production, a greater understanding of disease-causing agents and methods of transmission led to caged housing systems that separated birds from their faeces, alongside the development of vaccines. Yet now, with the recognition of the hen as a sentient being with behavioural needs, cages are increasingly viewed as an unacceptable way of keeping hens by society as a whole. Moreover, the expanding human population not only increases the demand for eggs but also drives a need for sustainable production in the environmental sense. It becomes imperative to reduce wastage, including from high levels of mortality, and, thus the uptake of science, such as measures to reduce injurious pecking (case study), is of increasing importance. Although
farmers may adopt practices that clearly lead to greater profitability, there tends to be resistance to changing practices where the benefit is not clear-cut and the techniques are time-consuming (Palczynski et al., 2016). Thus, some of current research is towards incorporating social science to better understand the expectations of society and also to improving knowledge sharing and stimulation of the uptake of better practices among farmers. For example, the EU Hennovation project is examining whether grassroots-led initiatives lead to improved uptake of science-based knowledge and a greater development of and sharing of innovative approaches. Evidence is emerging of the value
of including outcome measures in assurance schemes: Mullan and colleagues (2016) have reported improved plumage in free-range flocks as incorporating feather cover as an outcome measure in two UK assurance schemes and farmers have been encouraged to monitor their own flocks.
Well-managed free-range units can achieve good hen health and welfare with a reduced carbon footprint, particularly if alternative sources of protein from insects or home-grown crops can be utilised. Current research is directed at achieving even more sustainable and welfare-friendly production by facilitating the uptake of evidence-based techniques and knowledge as well as advancing the underpinning science. The contribution and scale of village flocks to food security and the local economy of many developing countries should not be overlooked (Alders and Pym, 2009). Here, some light-touch science has led to
significant increases in production by, for example, crossing modern hybrids with native breeds, introducing extended lighting, and developing efficient incubation techniques, cost-effective dietary supplements and vaccines against diseases such as Newcastle disease.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationAchieving Sustainable Production of Eggs
EditorsJulie Roberts
Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
PublisherBurleigh Dodds Science Publishing
Number of pages25
ISBN (Print)9781786760807
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • welfare
  • free-range
  • hens
  • sustainability
  • EGGS


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