A short and cramped life on the egg conveyor belt

Kathy Marks visits a farm where specially bred hens deliver 300 eggs a year
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The first thing that hits you is the stench, the sickly-sweet odour of bird droppings, the combined excreta of 144,000 hens. Then the din; a cacophony of squawking, the clatter of machinery as eight tons of eggs begin their daily journey to the supermarket.

Row upon row of tiny metal cages, stacked eight tiers high, stretch as far as the eye can see. Inside each cage, five hens jostle for room on a wire netting base, in a space so confined that they can barely turn around. A half-hearted attempt by one bird to flap its wings sends the rest into a panic. Their beaks are trimmed to prevent them from pecking one another to death.

Here, in a harshly lit shed on a farm in southern England, hens genetically engineered to deliver more than 300 eggs a year live out the 50 or so weeks of their laying lives before submitting to the electric stunner on the slaughter line. This is a typical commercial battery unit, the origin of 85 per cent of eggs eaten by British consumers.

It is a scene to curdle the blood of animal rights activists, and access to the farm yesterday was granted on strict condition that its name and location were not disclosed. David Humphrey, the owner, does not want the militants camped on his doorstep.

Nor does he believe that his hens are kept in conditions of discomfort. They have plenty to eat and drink, are protected from disease and live in an environment where the temperature and ventilation are con- trolled by computer.

What is striking is the highly automated nature of this intensive production system. Eggs roll down the sloping floor of the cages on to conveyor belts that take them to be sorted, boxed and loaded on to a lorry. A feed dispenser slides along from row to row, filling a trough that runs in front of the cages. Below is another conveyor belt which removes manure once a week.

All very efficient, but how is it for the hens, crammed in so tightly, deprived of fresh air and natural light? Richard August, farms manager, says that if they had more room, the mortality rate would be higher.

"They are cannibalistic by nature," he says. "More space makes them aggressive because they guard their territory. What we are doing is protecting them from themselves."

Mr August rejects the animal welfare argument that the birds, with no opportunity to exercise, and drained of calcium to make egg shells, suffer a high incidence of broken bones.

Actually, these are fortunate hens. European Union regulations stipulate a minimum surface area per bird of 500sq cm, similar to an A4 sheet of paper. Mr Humphrey's hens stand on one-fifth more space than that.

Ten per cent of his stock is kept in free-range or "barn" conditions, where he says the birds are less productive and more expensive to manage. He receives 45p for a dozen battery eggs, compared with 60p for barn eggs and up to 68p for free-range.

"Fifteen per cent of consumers are willing to pay a premium," says Mr Humphrey. "So if you ban battery farming, what are you going to do, force everyone else to pay extra for their eggs? We are quite happy to invest in alternative systems as long as the demand is there."