It's the year 2013 and I'm enjoying a balmy summer's day in the Polish countryside. I'm sat on a step in my partner's garden, watching her chickens explore the grassy surroundings. They move in a group, maintaining a safe distance from any potential threats (me and a sausage dog in this instance), scratching the ground beneath them in search of food. Sometimes one of them will pull out an unsuspecting worm, which they pause to gobble up before moving forward and scratching again. When birds of prey fly overhead, they run for cover in the nearby hedgerow. I'm struck by their intelligence, character and beauty as they roam freely around the garden, and not for the first time I question my decision to exploit them for my food.
Fast forward to 2017, and the contradiction of loving and hurting chickens no longer exists in my life. I don't eat them, nor do I eat their eggs. This is in part because of the connection I made that day in Poland, and in part because of what I have since learnt about their journey to my plate.
As a meat-eater for most of my life, I was always aware of the contradiction between eating and loving animals. After all, killing doesn't really go hand in hand with affection. But I was never really aware of how much cruelty I was supporting. Like many other people, I imagined that the meat I ate came from farm animals that had lived relatively happy lives, followed by a painless death at a ripe old age. This wasn't based on any actual evidence - it was just one I had dreamed up to smother my guilt. But as with most imagined realities, this perception all changed when I decided to objectively research the facts.
I discovered that the average broiler (meat) chicken lives only 45 days (up to 70 days if free range or organic), despite a life expectancy of about 10 years. The majority endure short lives in overcrowded barns or sheds, beaks clipped, with less space than a sheet of A4 paper. When they reach full-size they are cruelly transported to a premature and painful death.
My ignorance around egg production was even greater. Here, my imagination had conjured up images of hens happily wandering around farms, laying eggs at will. I'd attributed this definition to most egg-laying hens, with particular kudos given to the free-range variety. But again, it turned out my perceptions were inaccurate.
'Free range' is of course one of the kinder methods of egg production. It ensures access to the outdoors, and all the natural behaviours that come with it. But it doesn't prevent hens from being 'beaked' - a painful practice of beak trimming to prevent injury to other chickens (triggered by the stress of confinement). It doesn't protect them from selective breeding that maximises egg yield but produces weak and brittle bones. Nor, of course, does it prevent a premature death (around 80 weeks), the stress of travel and the lottery of slaughter. The free range label also fails to stop the 'sexing' that takes place at birth where 'unsuitable' male chicks are either incinerated or gassed.
Of course free range eggs are better than barn or caged, which make up roughly the other half of eggs produced in the UK. Barn hens have little to no access to daylight and are often crammed in with thousands of other hens. Caged hens are typically restricted to around 750 square centimetres of space (little more than a sheet of A4 paper) and 45cm height, which in practice means their living conditions are not much better than the battery cages that were banned in the UK in 2012. Caged chickens never see the light of day and never enjoy the natural behaviours they desire. You can find out more about the various methods of egg production here.
It's a pretty grim picture, I'm sure you'll agree. But fortunately there are a number of things we can do to help. The best thing we can do is stop eating eggs altogether, and as someone who has taken this step, I can assure you it isn't that hard. The Vegan Society has some great advice on how to replace eggs in cakes or other food, and the 'free from' sections of supermarkets are ever-growing. But if you're not ready to give up your morning scrambled eggs, an easier option is to prioritise the least cruel varieties (not forgetting to do this for products with egg in their ingredients too). Compassion in World Farming have a great guide on the labels that indicate the most humane egg production - 'Soil Association approved' organic eggs coming out top. A local farm where you are sure of the production process may also be an option. Of course, even the most humane providers are unlikely to bypass the 'sexing' stage'. Nor are they likely to extend the lives of chickens beyond their productive years (of course some might). But taking this step does ensure you are not supporting the extremes of cruelty and suffering.
Beyond our personal eating choices, we can lobby or boycott the companies that still use eggs from caged hens. By changing the behaviour of just one major restaurant chain, we can improve the lives of 100s of thousands of hens. Charities such as The Humane League specialise in targeting these companies and have successfully persuaded many of the UK's large retailers and restaurants to go cage-free (they are currently targeting Butlins and Britannia Hotels). They are an excellent source of guidance, and supporting them can make a real difference.
One of the most powerful things we can do though, is to educate ourselves and others about the truth of egg and chicken production. So many people are under the illusions I was, but by spreading the facts, we can shift awareness and move the industry away from its cruel extremities. Sharing this blog, or any of the reports I've linked to, may be a good start.