Quail for Christmas? Recipes are plentiful. These birds are the smallest European game bird. But those for the table have never been wild and they have not been shot for sport. Rather they are - as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has described them - factory farming's most recent and smallest victims.
Quail are tiny - small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. One bird per person is enough for a starter but you need two for a main course. Their eggs - which are about the size of an olive - are more a garnish than a fulsome part of a dish (imagine the size of newly hatched chicks: weighing about 10g they are barely the size of the end of your thumb).
Their size is not the only thing that makes quail different from other farmed poultry. They are also more timid and more easily startled by sudden noises. When alarmed they crouch down and then, poised for flight, push themselves upwards very fast. In cages they are easily injured, or even killed, when they hit the roof. Some countries, including the UK, have Codes of Practice that advise cage heights to be 20cm. But these are not legal requirements and no country has particular laws for the welfare of quail.
These birds are also fiercely territorial and 'feather pecking' or 'cannibalism' is rife. One way to reduce cannibalism is to 'beak trim'. Beak trimming is particularly cruel as underneath the outer casing runs a system of blood vessels and nerve endings. These enable birds to use their beaks in much the same way we use our fingers - to pick up food, to touch and sense, feel and explore. In effect trimming beaks is similar to a human having their finger tips amputated. Beaks are usually 'trimmed ' with a hot blade which cauterises (stems bleeding) at the same time. One quail-rearing manual advises using nail scissors in an emergency.
Like all intensively reared poultry quail are prone to a raft of diseases like coccidiosis, a parasitic infection that affects the digestive tract. Or ulcerated enteritis (also known as Quail Disease as it was first found in quail) which causes ulcers in the small intestine and is highly contagious and always fatal. Ammonia fumes from the build up of faeces are another source of suffering. The pungent gas can cause swollen heads, nasal discharges and runny eyes. Stiff joints and other leg and feet problems are common too and mortality rates are high.
At seven weeks quail are ready for slaughter. Being more delicate than other poultry the birds have light bones that break easily when they are roughly handled, particularly when they are packed into crates for taking to the abattoir. On arrival they are hung by the legs on shackles for the beginning of the killing process. They are stunned in the same way as any other variety of poultry - that is when they make contact with an electrically charged water bath. They are killed either by throat slitting, neck dislocation or decapitation. Only the largest quail and quail egg producer in the UK has a licence to kill their birds on site. This company, Fayre Game, hatches 30,000 eggs a week: production - and slaughter - on a massive scale.
The quail egg market is a profitable one since quail mature at 6 weeks and begin to lay at about 12 weeks. Experienced quail farmers advise that egg production can be maximised by keeping lights on for 14-18 hours a day. In this way birds will lay about 200 eggs a year. (Yet in the wild these birds lay just one batch of 12 eggs in the spring which the males help to incubate; and both parents keep their chicks close by for their first summer). Some quail farmers, including Fayre Game have a 'free to fly' system. But other producers keep birds in small cages (about 13 x20 cms), two to a cage. Birds are usually 'beak trimmed' at about two weeks. Laying quail suffer all the ailments associated with intensive egg laying such as prolapses, egg peritonitis, impacted eggs and 'cage layer fatigue' (a form of paralysis). Mortality rates have been described as "high".
Thanks mainly to celebrity chefs, television cookery programmes and cookery journalists quail and quail egg consumption is increasing at 10 - 15% a year. What if there were more acclaimed vegan chefs (is Tal Ronnen the only one)? Would that help reduce the number of animals that experience the brutality and abject suffering involved in factory farming?