No Animal Left Behind: why do laying hens need specific laws to protect their welfare?


No Animal Left Behind: why do laying hens need specific laws to protect their welfare?

17 April 2023

Did you know millions of laying hens in Europe never get to see daylight? Trapped in so-called ‘enriched’ cages, these innocent birds spend their days confined, depressed, injured and sick. They’re often deliberately mutilated, too, as their beaks are trimmed - a cruel practice that causes them chronic pain. The European Commission has the power to change their lives completely when revising the animal welfare legislation, by including specific laws for laying hens that protect them from harm and honour their unique natures.

Laying hens are extremely intelligent animals. Not only can they dream and remember people, places and things, they also understand geometry and can solve puzzles!

Able to feel everything from joy and curiosity to pain, laying hens are sentient beings with striking personalities, who deserve to feel safe in the world - just as every other animal does.

Sadly, laying hens are far from being taken care of in Europe’s farming systems. Trapped in uncomfortable cages with wire floors - without access to daylight and enduring injuries, frustration and boredom - their one constant is suffering.

What do laying hens experience on EU factory farms?

Among other things, laying hens are forced to endure: 

  • A stifling lack of room: In the ‘enriched cages’ millions of laying hens are trapped within, they have only 600cm² of usable space - when evidence shows they need around 2,500cm² to behave naturally. Due to these extreme limitations on their movement, these poor birds can get no respite from each other, flap their wings or turn comfortably. 
  • Beak trimming: In their confinement, laying hens often get stressed and aggressive with one another. To stop them from pecking their peers and causing them injury, their beaks are often trimmed, putting them in a state of constant pain. Of course, this ‘injurious pecking’ would not even be an issue if these innocent beings were not housed in such horrible conditions to begin with. It’s brutally unfair that they are mutilated as a result of their poor housing conditions. 
  • The inability to be themselves: In nature, hens will spend about 50% of their time foraging and scratching at the ground, and are also highly motivated to dustbathe. Enriched cages completely fail to satisfy these needs, as birds are fed from a feeder, and any litter that is provided is quickly depleted (so the benefits are short-lived).
  • Uncomfortable and harmful habitats: Caged hens have reduced bone strength, more fractures and bone deformities due to their suffocating lives behind bars. The wire floors on which they exist not only cause them pain, but are often filthy too, as they are not sanitised sufficiently.

Learn more about these issues on pages 20 - 30 of our No Animal Left Behind report.

Europe’s laying hens could - and should - have much better lives

Many of the problems laying hens encounter exist due to shortfalls in the European Union’s animal welfare legislation - which policymakers are now due to revise. They must not miss this opportunity to include strong, precise, and  targeted rules for the welfare of laying hens based on our Hens’ Asks, which include:

  • The complete and unambiguous banning of cages for laying hens and other species - which is also what European citizen’s want, as shown clearly by the huge response to the ‘End the Cage Age’ ECI
  • A smaller number of hens being housed in the same spaces - to decrease aggression, stress, and injurious pecking among birds, as well as make them more comfortable in general
  • Access to the outdoors and natural light - as well as an uninterrupted period of darkness for at least eight hours a day (to facilitate comfortable sleeping patterns).

Along with addressing these needs, the Commission must honour their commitment to properly eliminate cages in Europe as soon as possible. The recommendations in our new report, ‘Phasing out cages in the EU: the road to a smooth transition’ explains how to achieve this crucial change in a sustainable, pragmatic way. 

It’s time we turn the page for Europe’s laying hens - beginning a new chapter that puts their welfare first. Are you with us?

We’re trying to change history for farm animals this year through phase two of the No Animal Left Behind campaign. Add your voice to our movement!