Free-range Lion egg producers can increase their external stocking rates from 1 January 2009 to help the industry meet growing consumer demand for British free-range eggs. But the RSPCA says it still needs convincing before making the same change to its rules.
The decision was taken at a recent meeting of the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) Lion code subscribers and will see the stocking rate doubled from 1000 to 2000 birds/ha. This is still below the EU egg marketing regulations, which allows a density of 2500/ha.
BEIC chief executive Mark Williams explained: “It was an important decision in the light of still-growing demand for free-range eggs. With the looming 2012 conventional cage ban, we needed to start the process of bringing more free-range egg production on board to meet the anticipated increase in demand.”
It means producers limited by land area can have more birds in the same free-range area. It is a quicker process to get planning permission to add buildings to an existing unit than starting from scratch for a new site, so boosting production in the shorter term.
BEIC hopes that RSPCA Freedom Food, which has a limit of 1000/ha, would go along with the move.
But Alice Clark, senior scientific officer of the RSPCA’s farm animal science department told Poultry World that before making any decision, the society would thoroughly consider whether the proposed change in stocking density would be acceptable in terms of hen welfare.
“The society does have some welfare concerns about increasing the maximum stocking density, primarily in how this change could affect the quality of the range area. To this end we are seeking robust assurances – based on sound evidence – that such a change would maintain good quality of range vegetation in which the hens can express natural behaviours, such as foraging and dust-bathing, and would not increase the risk of disease build-up.”
She added: “It is for these very reasons that the RSPCA’s own standards for free-range hens allow 1000/ha over the life of the flock and, where rotational grazing is practised, a maximum of 2500/ha at any one time. This is vitally important in order to make sure that parts of the land can be rested where necessary, to encourage regrowth of vegetation and minimise disease risks.
“We are not ruling out the possibility of increasing the overall stocking density, but would need to be convinced that it can be achieved without compromising welfare.”