Earlier this year SAFE director Hans Kriek and campaigns officer Sacha Dowell visited Mainland Poultry’s battery cage operation to view the proposed new colony cages. Hans reports on why colony cages are not an option.
Mainland Poultry is New Zealand’s largest producer of battery eggs. Their Waikouaiti ‘farm’ alone houses over 400,000 hens. Mainland Poultry has been trialing new colony cages in an attempt to convince the government to accept these cage systems as a ‘welfare acceptable’ replacement to existing battery cages.
After two years of trying, I finally gained permission to view conditions on New Zealand’s largest battery hen farm. I was particularly interested in their colony cage trials and my worst fears were confirmed.
The first shed contained a standard cage system. In this shed 45,000 hens were housed five to a cage with only 500 square centimetres of space per bird (an A4 sheet of paper is 623 centimetres). The cages were stacked eight high. One stock person looks after two of these sheds, meaning that one person is expected to look after the welfare of 90,000 hens in a normal workday. This amounts to 0.3 seconds of attention per bird if they are viewed only once per day. How anyone can check on the welfare of any animal in 0.3 seconds is beyond me. The dark conditions and the height of the stacked cages further prevented any meaningful observation of the birds.
We proceeded to another shed containing 47,000 hens in colony cages. At first glance these cages looked very similar to standard cages. These colony cages (called furnished colony systems by an industry desperate to avoid the word ‘cage’) are approximately 3.5 metres long, 1.3 metres wide and only 45 centimetres high. They were stacked six high with sixty birds per cage. Each hen has 750 square centimetres each for space, only marginally larger than an A4 sheet of paper. They contain a nesting area, perches and a scratching area. The nesting area however is just a small piece of rubber mat on the wire netting with a few rubber flaps hanging down from the roof of the cage. All sixty birds share this space. The scratching area is another rubber mat on the other end of the cage. A few pellets are dropped on this area from time to time to encourage scratching. We saw no birds engaging in this behaviour during our visit. Four perches run the length of the cage, only seven centimetres from the floor. While these perches will undoubtedly provide with some relief from the sloping wire floor at night, they are mere obstacles for the hens during the day and make moving around in the cage even more difficult.
According to Mainland Poultry, hens in colony cages had a lower mortality and were more relaxed than standard caged birds. All I could see were hugely overcrowded cages with birds jostling for space. The fact is that colony cages do not allow hens to express their normal behaviour, something required by law and the birds still can’t fly, dust or sun bathe or scratch in the soil.
Bringing in these so-called ‘welfare improved’ cages is nothing more than a ploy by the egg industry to avoid having legislation forced upon them that would ban the caging of hens in favour of free range or barn systems. As consumers are no longer apathetic to the plight of battery hens and the growing awareness has consumers shifting away from cage eggs the harder it will be for Mainland Poultry and the government to justify keeping hens in cages. SAFE remains at the forefront of this growing awareness and we will not stop until the last hen is liberated from her cage.
Hans Kriek, SAFE director
Also: watch Hans talking to Campbell Live reporter Natasha Utting, as she attempts to see for herself the hens inside the colony cage system.