Are free-range hens really free?

The following article is by SAFE guest blogger Shawn Bishop, who runs an animal sanctuary in Matakana that rehabilitates injured native birds and offers a safe, loving home to a variety of animals.

Through an arrangement with farmers Shawn has rescued many battery hens who, due to being at the end of their ‘useful life’ at just 18 months of age, would otherwise be killed. Just recently, Shawn was involved in a rescue of free-range hens. Here she discusses the shock reaction some people experienced at seeing the terrible state of the free-range birds.

Rescued – to a new life

The hen rescue in February (2013) was a success, in that we were able to bring 97 hens away with us. However, many of them are in a terrible physical state. A visitor this morning cried when she saw them. It may shock you to learn that these are free-range hens, not battery hens.

Free range hen







The dominant ones look OK, but the majority have feather loss or raw areas where they’ve been pecked due to the intensive nature of even free-range farms.

The truth is, intensive farming is concentration camp farming, whether they are in cages or not.

Although free-range animals may have a comparatively better life than caged hens, you can see for yourself that these hens have suffered. As SAFE puts it:

All commercial farming systems have some form of cruelty inherent in the system – for example, most animal husbandry practices cause stress or pain and, of course, no farm animal will ever live out its natural life. Any kind of animal farming is not done in the interest of the animals themselves and causes suffering for them. They are bred solely for profit.”

With millions of unwanted male chicks (from all industries) also being ground up alive in New Zealand it’s easy to despair.

When will we learn? All this suffering for the temporary pleasure of a cheap egg.

The hens we were able to rescue will go through a period of rehabilitation and healing, and then be adopted out to good, permanent homes.

Free Range Concerns

I know many people will feel extreme dismay and discouragement at these images. I see this so often that I thought it was important to reveal the truth behind many free-range eggs.

Of course we rescue the worst – but the truth is that this is all too common. Many people asked where this happened, so here’s another shock: the independent free-range farm we rescued from is actually a ‘good’ one, compared to others! Consider this:

  • The farm from which we rescued these hens has just over 1000 hens per barn.
  • In comparison the new free-range farm near us has 7,500 hens per barn and the SPCA Blue Tick allows 4000 per barn.
  • The welfare regulations and the SPCA Blue Tick criteria allow 10 hens per square metre on a free-range farm. That’s packed! This farm has six per square metre, almost half that density and you’ve seen the state our new hens are in.
  • The main egg companies require that all laying hens are replaced (i.e. killed) by 18 months. And they do NOT allow rescues. This farmer does.

So your target isn’t this farm per se, it’s the bigger companies that do the minimum allowed by law, to spend less on welfare and make more money. I hear you ask in frustration, “So what do I do?! I thought I was avoiding cruelty by buying free range eggs!” Well, there ARE several positive things you can do.

Cruelty Free Eggs?

We don’t want people thinking they might as well buy any eggs since cruelty-free cannot be assured, so here are some ideas on how to avoid the cruelty of ALL intensive egg production

  1. Stop using eggs. There are a million recipes for great baking and food without eggs. Try visiting Go Veg, Chef In You or Cruelty Free Recipes. If you can’t stop completely, reduce as much as you can.
  2. If you want to use eggs but want them to be guaranteed cruelty-free, then get a small coop and keep a couple of pet hens in your backyard. Even in the city and suburbs of Auckland you’re allowed to have up to six hens. They make great pets (who’d have thought it, but it’s true!!) and you’ll have healthy happy eggs as a bonus. You can even adopt 18-month-old rescued ex-battery or ex-free range hens from rescue/rehab centres. We’re organising them all over the country, and they’ll soon be posted on The NZ Hen Welfare Trust facebook page.
  3. If you can’t have hens of your own, find someone who does. Many people have pet hens who produce more eggs than they need, and they’d be happy to sell you some to help pay for the feed for their hens.

Thank you for caring. For more information check out SAFE’s infographic and follow the Animal Sanctuary on Facebook.

Shawn Bishop, Animal Sanctuary


11 Comments Add yours

  1. I’m glad to see SAFE providing practical solutions for people who want to eat eggs, instead of just suggesting they become vegan. I have 35 hens and sell my eggs locally. My hens do not suffer at all. They have a very happy life. I do not put economics above hen welfare. If SAFE wants to stop layer hen cruelty, then it needs to make practical suggestions other than advocating veganism. Perhaps create a register of people like me who have spare eggs that really are cruelty free. Convincing people to adopt veganism is not going to be an effective way to stop hen cruelty. Give people practical solutions, not moral ones – in the same way that WSPA stops bear baiting in Pakistan, by giving bear owners new employment.

    1. Josephine Sutton says:

      I agree. Where can we buy your eggs?

      1. I live near Ngunguru, which is just north of Whangarei on the Tutukaka Coast. Our website is called Kaiatea Hens, You can pick eggs up from us. We have tried posting eggs, but haven’t been all that successful. But we can try again, if you like.

  2. josephine Sutton says:

    So how do we find out which of the “free range” farms are genuinely so?

  3. hanger17 says:

    Reblogged this on Time for Action.

  4. Greg says:

    The whole concept of “free range” allows people to feel better about the slaughter of innocent beings. Sad really. The truth needs to be told.

    1. Josephine Sutton says:

      This article concerns for the very reason you are voicing…people will think they might as well buy any eggs if free range are still cruel. It has taken so long to get people to even make a move towards free range. Please dont push it backwards at this stage.
      I understood that there are both barn kept hens and outdoor hens…is this correct? Can you please put up a list of the best of the free range eggs to buy?

      1. Yes, it is true that some hens are kept in barns and some can go outside. However, some ‘free-range’ hens are in fact barn hens because the hens do not choose to go outside. One reason is that the outside area is just concrete and no water is provided. Some of these factors come through in the report “Comparative Assessment of Layer Hen Welfare in New Zealand. Final Survey Report – March 2009 (updated May 2009) MAF Biosecurity New Zealand Technical Paper No 2009/18”

  5. Paula says:

    I have read that the only way to guarantee cruelty free eggs is to buy organic eggs. Would this be true?

    1. I have written a short article about the welfare of hens on free-range farms, organic and not organic. You can find it at

      The information I refer to comes from the report “Comparative Assessment of Layer Hen Welfare in New Zealand. Final Survey Report – March 2009 (updated May 2009) MAF Biosecurity New Zealand Technical Paper No 2009/18”.

      Basically, whether a farm is organic or not is not an indicator of hen welfare. For example, of the 10 organic farms surveyed, only one provided outdoor water. Also, as I recall but I may be wrong, some organic farms still had the hens debeaked, which is shocking thing to do to a hen.

      1. Josephine Sutton says:

        Thanks Alison for all the information. What a disgusting business it is.
        I think you are too far away from me but I am going to try the farmers’ markets in Auckland and see what I can find. It is very distressing to hear that free range is not so hot..

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