Top RSPCA and Freedom Food officials have checked out free-range egg units in France where flocks are stocked at 2000 birds/ha, with the aim of seeing whether UK hens could be stocked at this density without compromising welfare.

Currently, Freedom Food egg flocks have a maximum external stocking density of 1000/ha. However, last month (see p9), Lion eggs announced that it was doubling its external stocking limit to 2000 birds/ha from 1 January 2009 and called on Freedom Food to follow suit. This is still below the 2500 birds/ha upper limit allowed under the EU marketing regulations.

The British Egg Industry Council explained that the change was to kick-start the process of bringing more free-range egg production on board to meet the anticipated rise in demand with the approaching 2012 conventional cage ban.

Freedom Food technical development manager Bob Waller said that the society was approaching the issue with an open mind and did not want to miss an opportunity to get layers out of cages – conventional or enriched.

“We were encouraged by our visit to France where the range areas were in good condition and the birds were well feathered.

“We are not going backward, but we do need to prevent the build-up of disease around pop-holes with some hard standing. Also we need to ensure the provision of trees and other means of cover to encourage birds to use the whole range area,” he said, adding that a decision was expected in the New Year.

Dorian Cross, Freedom Food’s field assessment manager, identified the area close to the house as a potential problem. The impact of a 100% increase could lead to standing water on impacted ground and less vegetation, he warned.