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’Alarming’ conditions unearthed at Welsh egg farm

24 Mar 2024 8 minute read
A dead chicken at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

Stephen Price

An undercover investigation into the production of free-range eggs in Wales has unearthed ‘alarming conditions’ and concerns about welfare practices in the industry.

Amongst the farms scrutinised, one Stonegate-suppling farm in Powys has drawn criticism for its association with a director of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), Pauline Anne Jones and alleged “poor welfare” – as asserted by campaigners.

Stonegate supplies free-range eggs to supermarkets under brands such as the popular Clarence Court.

“Concerns’

The investigation was carried out by Animal Justice Project – an animal rights organisation based in the UK with over 200,000 followers and an 8-year history of campaigning to end animal agriculture and exploitation.

Their investigation took place between September 2023 and January 2024 and featured in The Sunday Mirror.

Footage reveals alarming conditions for free-range hens which, Animal Justice Project says, ‘raise significant concerns about animal welfare practices within the industry’ – at stark odds with the industry’s images of happy outdoor free range hens in adverts and on packaging.

Dead chickens in a freezer at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

The farm in Powys, housing 21,500 hens, supplies Sherriff’s Wood Eggs (certified by RSPCA Assured and the British Quality Lion Standard) t0 Stonegate.

It is owned by BFREPA director, Pauline Jones’ husband, Richard Jones and, despite having resigned as director to make a career as a free-range egg consultant, Pauline continues to play a role in the farm management according to the charity.

Cannibalism

Since the investigation broke, RSPCA Assured and Stonegate have dropped the farm from their label pending investigations. Key findings from the farm include:

  • Incidents of illness and evidence of cannibalism among the hens.
  • Presence of dead birds in nest boxes and lying across feeders.
  • Feather loss and neglect indicative of poor living conditions.
  • Several sick hens observed, exhibiting symptoms such as heavy breathing, closed eyes possibly in pain, lethargy, collapse on slatted floors, diarrhoea, and deformed necks.
  • Drone footage capturing unopened pop holes on three consecutive days in December 2023.
  • Strong presence of ammonia within the farm’s premises, posing health risks to both hens and workers.
A dead chicken at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

Several dead hens were found among the living hens within the shed, with instances of cannibalism observed.

Feather loss due to pecking was prevalent, particularly on the necks and backs of many hens.

In the egg packing room, a chest freezer filled with deceased hens, some marked with blue spray on their feathers, was labeled “Category 2 Waste Animal By-Products”.

“Burning my eyes”

The attempts at ‘enrichment’ on the farm, such as hanging egg boxes and hay bales, appeared inadequate in addressing the welfare needs of the hens.

An investigator remarked: “The level of ammonia was the worst I’ve ever experienced, literally burning my eyes and lungs.”

Chickens, who saw no daylight during investigations, at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

Animal Justice Project’s drone footage revealed birds not able to get out to the range due to pop holes at Sherriff’s Wood Eggs across three days in December 2023 which appears to flout both RSPCA Assured and British Lion rules.

In free-range farms, hens can be crammed in with up to 16,000 others per shed and up to nine hens per square metre.

Artificial light

The disturbing pattern of birds not being outside during the investigation at each farm appears to go against RSPCA standards which states that ‘laying hens kept in free-range systems must have continuous daytime access to the range’ [10], as well as British Lion stating they must be outside for at least eight hours a day [11].

A dying chicken at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

The investigation follows the results of a survey by RSPCA Assured showing that 87% of the UK public value hen welfare.

As the nation moves towards a future seemingly free of caged eggs — over 70% of eggs sold in the UK were from already cage-free hens in 2022 — it is imperative to confront the harsh realities of cage-free production, campaigners say.

Veterinary Professor Andrew Knight, who watched the footage from all farms, commented: “The suffering and death of laying hens appeared to be present across all the free-range egg farms I viewed footage of — all of which I am told were RSPCA Assured.”

“Multiple serious health problems were clearly evident, without any signs of the veterinary care these warranted. Many hens showed severe feather loss, consistent with barren environment leaving limited opportunity to move, or to exercise highly-motivated natural behaviours, such as foraging, exploring and dust-bathing.

“In short, the conditions in which these hens were kept were likely to be chronically stressful to them, and to cause great suffering in numerous hens”.

Chickens kept indoors at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

A spokesperson for Stonegate said: “The care and welfare of our flocks are of the utmost importance to us, and we take allegations of mistreatment of birds very seriously.

“On receiving the footage, we immediately suspended the farm in question pending both our own investigation and the reports of qualified independent veterinarians.

“We also insisted that the farm refer the matter to their local authority. The site was audited by an RSPCA auditor during an unannounced inspection, and separately the British Industry Egg Council have also carried out an audit.

“We will wait for the collective findings of the respective reports before taking the necessary corrective actions.”

RSPCA

An RSPCA Assured spokesperson said: “This footage is understandably upsetting and we quickly suspended all three farms whilst we urgently launched an investigation.

“This included unannounced physical inspections of all of the farms by specially-trained RSPCA Assured assessors, and a detailed analysis of the footage by our experts to identify each of the farms featured and any breaches of the RSPCA welfare standards.

“Following our investigation, we have lifted the suspension of one of the farms as we are satisfied that they have fully addressed any welfare issues shown in the footage. However, we will be working closely with them to provide additional support and advice to help them continue meeting the RSPCA’s strict welfare standards. They will also be subject to at least two unannounced visits within the next 12 months to ensure that the RSPCA’s standards continue to be met.”

A dead chicken at Sheriff’s Wood Eggs, Newtown, Powys. Photograph: Animal Justice Project

The spokesperson continued: “A second farm, which featured only briefly in the footage, had no birds on the farm when we visited. We will therefore carry out an unannounced visit once it has been re-stocked with hens. The third farm is still under investigation and as such we are unable to comment further at this time.

“Sadly, from time to time things can go wrong on farms but one case of poor welfare is still one too many, which is why we have taken these allegations very seriously. However, welfare concerns on RSPCA Assured certified farms are very rare, and many millions more farm animals are having a better life thanks to the work of the charity and its dedicated members.

“We would ask anyone with concerns about an animal on an RSPCA Assured certified farm to always report it immediately, so that we can act swiftly. Any delay in reporting concerns means there is a significant risk of an animal being left to suffer unnecessarily.”

“Reality”

Ayrton Cooper, Campaigns Manager at Animal Justice Project, stated: “The welfare of animals at Sherriff’s Wood Eggs is a matter of great concern.

“These conditions starkly contrast with the expectations of consumers who trust brands like Stonegate, which boasts of producing ‘Britain’s favourite eggs’.

“Our findings underscore the pressing need for increased transparency and accountability within the industry to safeguard the well-being of all animals involved.

“It’s imperative that the public be made aware of the reality behind free-range egg production and that stricter oversight measures are implemented in the egg industry.”

The British Free Range Egg Producers Association has also been asked to respond.

Find out more about Animal Justice Project at www.animaljusticeproject


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Frank
Frank
19 days ago

The people responsible should be subject to the same horrific conditions. See how they like it. Unbelievable!!!

Grackle
Grackle
19 days ago
Reply to  Frank

Unfortunately the people ultimately reponsible are the consumers who buy eggs…how many of these investigations do we need to see before we realise that this is a systemic problem in the industry? It seems like there’s a new one every other week, most of them from Red Tractor or RSPCA Assured Farms. Even the best of ‘free range’ egg farms still kill all the male chicks as they aren’t useful for meat, and the hens are still sent to slaughter at a fraction of their lifespan–all for a product we don’t really need. The compassionate option is to just avoid… Read more »

hdavies15
hdavies15
19 days ago

Factory farming – not a good source of food. Real free range is about hens wandering around in paddocks with uncrowded coops. I know it sounds like the “good old days” but not everything changes for the better.

Bethan
Bethan
18 days ago

The other day I watched a documentary called ‘Pignorant’. Very similar issue in pig farming. Red Tractor and RSPCA Assured again.

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