As many as 16,000 hens have been shown living in “revolting” conditions on a farm owned by a Ukip MEP, in secretly filmed video.
Footage shot by a volunteer from Norfolk’s Hillside Animal Sanctuary shows birds owned by the party's agriculture spokesman, Stuart Agnew, packed tightly into the shed in North Norfolk.
The chickens are legally deemed to be "free-range" - as they have access to an outside run through ‘pop’ holes punched in the walls of their shed - and an RSPCA inspection of the site found no breach of any animal welfare regulations.
But the volunteer who took the footage told the Mail on Sunday: “In an instant, I was reaching for my handkerchief, so eye-stinging was the stench. The smell of ammonia was ghastly, but what I saw was even worse.”
“Many were bald. The ones I examined were covered in mites, some with sores. Several had wounds the others pecked. It was a revolting sight.”
Eggs from the birds are supplied to Nobel Foods, which owns two brands of free-range eggs - Eggs For Soldiers and the Happy Eggs Company.
Mr Agnew defended the farm, saying in a statement: “The pictures, which appear to be cleverly choreographed by the activists, were sent to a journalist, who, on 20th January, sent them to the RSPCA.
“Within a few hours of receipt, the RSPCA arrived unannounced on my farm for an immediate audit and inspection. I was absent, but my staff were present.
“Our records, birds and farm premises were closely inspected. Our records demonstrated that the flock was under veterinary treatment for a feather loss problem that started the previous August with a condition known as enteritis.”
Marc Cooper, the RSPCA’s head of farm animals, said: “We checked to see that they had been seen by a vet and were satisfied they were.
“We deemed the birds looked bright. Yes, some had mites but it was being treated. We did feel the ammonia level was high in one area but that was addressed through ventilation.
Ukip gaffes and controversies
Ukip gaffes and controversies
1/12 Neil Hamilton
Picture Exclusive: The year is 1998. The venue is a Springbok Club meeting. The flag is a symbol for white supremacists in South Africa. And the speaker is Ukip’s deputy chairman, Neil Hamilton
2/12 Kerry Smith
Kerry Smith resigned as would-be MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock after it emerged he had mocked gay party members as “disgusting poofters”, joked about shooting people from Chigwell in a “peasant hunt” and referred to someone with a Chinese name as a “Chinky bird”
3/12 Natasha Bolter
Former Ukip member Natasha Bolter was suspected of not having the teaching qualifications she professed to, only days after it was revealed that claims of her having attended Oxford University were also false
4/12 Ukip Calypso song
Mike Reid released a single in praise of UKIP trying to control the UK's borders, only to withdraw the single after being accused of racism for singing in a Jamaican accent
5/12 Farage 'car-crash' interview
Ukip spin doctor forced to intervene as Farage falters in disastrous radio interview
6/12 Janice Atkinson
Janice Atkinson, Ukip's South East chair, pictured by protesters while campaigning in Ashford, Kent with local party chair Norman Taylor
7/12 Ukip cancels Freephone
Ukip cancels Freephone number after protesters repeatedly called to push up costs
8/12 Farage 'car-crash' interview
Mr Farage appeared to be caught out on a number of issues, from Romanian neighbours to people speaking foreign languages on the train
9/12 Ukip employs illegal immigrants
Ukip criticised after European election candidate found employing illegal immigrants
10/12 Magnus Nielsen
Ukip candidate: 'Take away the right to vote to improve election turnout'
11/12 London Live make-up
Ukip's Nigel Farage reportedly refused to go on London Live 'without professional make up-artist'
Nigel Farage says he is taking taking legal advice over “outrageous” allegations that he is responsible for more than £50,000 of “missing” EU funding that was paid directly into his personal bank account
“The filming was done at night when the ‘pop holes’ through which the birds gain access to the outside were closed. We investigated thoroughly and were satisfied that the producer had done everything he could and should. If he hadn’t, we would have taken it further.”
Under the industry’s quality assurance regulations, free-range farmers can house 16,000 hens in one building. Under EU law, up to nine hens can live in every square metre of floor space.
Each year, British families eat 11.5 billion eggs, of which 10 billion are produced in the UK. The free-range market accounts for half of all eggs in supermarkets. Britain has the largest free-range flock – 15 million birds – in Europe.