Late one evening last month, members of the Veganuary Team donned biosecurity overalls, dipped their boots into disinfectant and entered the sheds of a typical free-range egg farm. Their aim was not to find breaches of the law but to show the world what a typical ‘higher welfare’ egg farm looks like. The charity’s co-founder Jane Land explains why they did it, what they found, and why she feels ‘high welfare’ can never mean ‘cruelty-free’.

It was nothing like the image we've come to expect from high welfare

It was nothing like the image we've come to expect from high welfare

‘People associate free-range with better conditions and happier lives for animals raised on these farms. We wanted to see for ourselves the what life was like for free range chickens, looking beyond the happy images on egg boxes to see exactly what happens behind closed doors.

‘On entering the barn we were shocked to see how crowded it was – thousands of hens crowded together. They weren’t caged, but had limited movement because there were just so many of them. They scrambled on top of each another to reach perches, food or to escape another hen. And the smell! The ammonia from their waste was overpowering – the barn was filled with chickens perched or standing on metal bars above a three-foot-high mound of faeces. Thick cobwebs, clearly built up over a significant period of time, covered the walls. We found several dead hens on the area in front of the perches. It’s likely many more will have been there, but hidden from our view. Some dead birds had clearly been there for a number of days. Some of their bodies had been cannibalised. All the birds we saw that night had suffered from having their feathers plucked out. Some were so bald they looked like they were already prepared for the roasting tin, but with unpleasant red pressure sores.

‘One hen appeared to be stuck at the bottom of the raised perching area, unable to reach food and water. We sat with her and brought her some food and physically helped her back up to join the others. Goodness knows how long she’d been down there – and what her fate would have been if we hadn’t been there that night. Impressions in the sand on the barn floor showed that a number of the dead birds had been flapping their wings before their slow death, trying to move.

‘Nothing can quite prepare you for seeing animals suffering like that. To look them in the eye and know you’ll have to leave them there. It’s heart-breaking. On our way back from the farm we found ourselves wondering just why we treat other beings this way. The birds we saw were thinking, feeling beings, just like the animals we share our homes with. The memories from the night have haunted us since.  

‘Every member of team Veganuary has eaten free-range eggs in the past. We thought that free-range meant cruelty free, and that the animals had good lives and humane deaths. I’m so sorry now that I didn’t realise sooner that this isn’t the case. 

At Veganuary, we try to help people to understand the impacts of their food choices. People can then make an informed decision about what they want to eat. it’s within our power – our buying power – to change things.

‘We ask people to join us in trying vegan for a month. Whether that’s in January or right now. We’re here to support, guide, and advise anyone who wants to make this a better world for animals. You can sign up at Veganuary.com/register today and get all the resources you need to make trying vegan easier.’

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