This week we have an informative guest post from the lovely Caroline Cocker of We’d love to get you ethical meat-eaters out there thinking about your buying habits. How do you feel about free-range products and labelling? Let us know!

“Free-range is such a lovely idea.

Nothing makes us feel better about our roast free-range chicken steaming on the table, than imagining just how incredible its life was (I mean, we did pay a tenner for it). We dream that he/she spent their life chilling around the farm with mates, while we coo over lambs in spring, frolic through wildflower meadows in summer, then cosy up with a hot chocolate and Gilmore Girls when the nights turn cold.

I thought I was more well informed than most, because my parents always kept hens for eggs. I naively believed that the organic, free-range eggs I bought were laid by hens kept six-to-a-henhouse, just like they were at home. Ah, dear.

Free-range is little more than a marketing scam, designed to make us feel good about the products that we buy. Because if we feel good about what we’re buying, we’ll buy it again and again. Let’s find out more…

free-range chickens hens

How Are Egg-Laying Free-Range Hens Kept?

Chickens that produce free-range eggs can be legally stocked 9 hens per square metre. That’s rather at odds with the packaging on many egg boxes, which depict chubby hens having a lovely scratch in a picturesque field. Certainly not thousands of scruffy, skinny chickens in a dirty shed with access to a muddy yard (if they’re lucky!), fighting over food troughs and waterers, riddled with disease.

That assumes the hens are aware it’s ok to be spaced out 9 per egg laying hens in shedsquare  metre, and won’t just become territorial and fight for food. Did you know that when hens are stressed and frightened, they end up fighting and pecking each other, causing mutilation? Luckily, farmers have an ingenious solution to this – involving cutting off their beaks with no pain relief. This is also perfectly legal and standard industry practice, even for free-range hens. That is NOT at all in keeping with the lamb-cooing, wildflower-frolicking we envisioned when we paid £3 for a box of eggs from ‘happy’ hens.

Now, I have to skip over how weird it is that the RSPCA have so much say about the way farm animals are kept (it’s like Voldemort asking Ron for advice on how to beat Harry). I get it, they’re concerned about the welfare of animals but their guidelines are less than the bare minimum. Not only that, but inspections are rare and it’s very easy to get their ‘assured’ labelling. They really should stop marketing the ‘RSPCA Assured’ label and start campaigning for better conditions… assuming they even care at all.

In all of this, I’ve not even touched on what happens to boy chicks, because I wanted to swoop in and shock you one last time. The male chicks are either gassed or put through a grinder still alive, when they’re just a day old. Because they’re worthless (in a financial sense, anyway). Almost all other chickens are produced using artificial insemination because it’s more efficient and gives farmers complete control over the chicken’s genes. There’s no room for genes that produce bad egg-layers.

Still keen on that morning egg, or could you swap it for scrambled tofu?

Broiler Chickens

Chickens raised for meat (broilers) have even less space than their egg-laying friends – 12 per square metre, according to this article. Lucky them! I found the government guidelines here, but I couldn’t find any concrete numbers regarding stocking density. Confusing, huh? From what I could gather, farmers could determine optimum stocking levels for themselves. That sounds regulated and ethical!

territorial chickens on free-range farmIt’s important to note that whilst free-range broilers are permitted access to outside, it’s not always that easy. Hens operate a pretty strict hierarchy and will block the tiny popholes so others can’t get out. The chickens are also so densely packed that they can’t physically get to the pop holes anyway. In one farming system, some of the hens will be more free-range than others.

Broilers are also victims of beak-trimming, which remember is usually done with a laser, and no anaesthetic – ouch! They regularly fall victim to ammonia burns (from urine) and respiratory infections because the sheds they’re kept in are rarely cleaned out. Good profits require a high turnover!

Besides the cramped and stressful conditions that are perfectly legal and follow free-range guidelines, egg-laying hens are typically slaughtered after they’ve been laying for 1-2 years (they begin laying at around 18 months old). Their natural life span is far longer, around 10 years. If that sounds harsh, those unlucky enough to be bred for meat are slaughtered anywhere from 7-20 weeks. Even those labelled as free-range have been selectively bred over the years, so that their bodies grow up to 65 times faster than they would in the wild.  

What About Other Livestock?

Cows and sheep that are bred for meat are usually considered to be free-range

cattle cows for meat and dairybecause they tend to live outside (in the UK anyway – presuming you buy British only). Most of them are pasture-raised and it’ll proudly say (or state ‘grass-fed’) on the label.

The rubbish weather over here means it’s difficult to legislate specific amounts of time they should be outside. It’d be cruel and dangerous to send a cow out in the snow… right?

Dairy cows, however, are often kept inside their whole lives, and there are currently no regulations about intensively farmed cows, with regards to access to the outdoors. Intensive dairy farming is a fairly new idea in the UK, though it’s been the norm in the US for years. Let’s hope it fizzles out due to decreased demand, before it becomes standard practice here too. The dairy industry is scary enough as it is, what with the artificial insemination, separation of a calf from its mother, and inevitable early death – stressed and terrified on the floor of a slaughterhouse.

Pigs Matter Too!

pig in pen for meatVery few pigs are free-range, which is tragic, considering they’re as intelligent as a three-year-old child. So few, in fact, that guidelines are non-existent. Pigs are very destructive and can escape fairly easily, so it’s industry practice to keep them indoors. That’s why you rarely see pigs chilling out in fields with cows and sheep.

Years ago, when I was working as a waitress, a customer was horrified that the chicken on the menu wasn’t free-range, so refused it. She chose the pork instead. Did she ask if the pork was free-range? No. For some reason, that didn’t matter. Clever marketing has told us which animals to care about.

How About Backyard Hens?

One last thing… A lot of people ask if vegans consume the eggs from hens kept in the garden, and for most of us, the answer is no. I think partly because vegans are hyper-aware of what eggs are (bleugh), but mostly because eggs aren’t ours to take morally. In the wild, if a hen laid an infertile egg, she’d eat it, so vegans with backyard hens often give the eggs back to the hens, smashed up in their feed. It is worth noting that people do have different viewpoints on backyard hens

So, is free-range really the right way to go if you love animals?

I hope this post highlights that we, the consumer, can’t rely on marketinglamb happy vegan companies using clever labelling. It’s not an excuse to buy animal products and feel better about it. Humans slaughter over 50 billion chickens every year, yet how many do we actually see outside in fields?

Compassion in World Farming has a campaign calling for the government to introduce honest labelling if that’s something you’d like to find out more about. And really, if you’re worried about animal welfare, abstain from consuming their flesh and products. 

It’s that easy (and it is easy, especially since Gregg’s brought out vegan sausage rolls).

No matter how great the animal’s life was on the farm, it was unlikely to have ended well. There are currently severe weather warnings in the UK (possible snow), but that won’t stop livestock being bundled into freezing metal lorries and shipped off to the slaughterhouse. Let’s give animals the life they deserve. 

Free-range isn’t enough, not by a very long way. Go vegan.”

Carolinecaroline cocker vegan freelancer

Caroline Cocker is a writer, blogger, and jam doughnut aficionado living in rural North Yorkshire with her boyfriend, bunny, and prized Linda McCartney sausage collection. Check out her website for easy, practical tips on going vegan. Her mum thinks it’s funny…