There has been a flurry of headlines recently claiming that the caged hen lives a happier, less stressed life than her free-range counterpart. Not surprisingly, I beg to differ.
Don't get me wrong, the conditions in which you would now find a caged laying hen in the EU are a minor improvement from those just a couple of years ago. The barren battery cage, which has been illegal in the EU since January 2012, allowed each hen less floor space than an A4 sheet of paper, with nothing to stand on but a sloping wire mesh floor.
But have a quick search for images of 'enriched' cages and you'll see that the 'enrichments' provided by the new cage regulations are small mercies. The cage is slightly taller, at 45cm, but not tall enough for hens to fly. She can move around, yes, but her movements are restricted, and she cannot carry out natural behaviours such as dust-bathing. An 'enriched' cage, at the end of the day, is still a cage.
In contrast, the free-range hen can wander outside during the day and experience fresh air and sunlight. She can stretch her wings, explore and forage in her surroundings. There are of course good and bad examples of every system, but to suggest that any farm animal is better off in a cage is absurd to me.
Cages are the painful reality for millions of farm animals across the world, and this is not something to be celebrated. Despite the partial ban on sow stalls in 2013, over a million mother pigs in the EU are confined to steel cages barely larger than the size of their body throughout their pregnancy. Forced to stand on bare concrete or slats, their desperation to forage drives them to bite the bars.
Meanwhile farrowing crates, which are legal throughout the EU, confine the mother while she gives birth, and then prevent her moving to lick or nuzzle her piglets once they are born. An estimated 60% of UK sows are confined in this way.
Outside of the EU, male dairy calves can still legally be reared for veal in narrow wooden crates. Their movements are so severely restricted that they cannot turn around to groom themselves, adopt a normal sleeping position, or easily stand up or lie down. When they are removed from the crates for slaughter, they often have difficulty walking.
Cages like the ones I have described have no place in farming in this day and age. I'll leave you with the words of the late Peter Roberts, the founder of my charity, Compassion in World Farming: "The experts say this is not cruel. Any damned fool knows it is!"