Free range can be better, if issues are addressed

Amid a media storm about welfare standards on egg laying farms, Prof Christine Nicol of Bristol University’s School of Veterinary Science explains the science behind the headlines.

There has been a good deal of media coverage in recent weeks about the relative merits of enriched cage and free-range methods of egg production.

Some in the media have reached the simple conclusion that enriched cages are better for hen welfare than free range. Others have argued the opposite.

The situation is undoubtedly complex.

By the end of lay, 10% will have died. Only 12% of surviving birds will be unharmed

It is true that, in a comprehensive study comparing four different housing systems, hens in enriched cages had lower mortality and fewer problems relating to disease, pecking injuries and skeletal health than hens in any other system. However, in terms of bird welfare, the enriched cage can only take us so far. It can never provide birds with the full freedom to perform behaviours that matter to them.

In this respect the free-range system has the edge. More so than any alternative, the free-range system has the potential to meet both the physical and the behavioural needs of the birds. UK producers have been innovative and imaginative in developing this system in recent years and it is rightly the system of choice for the caring consumer. The problem – however we may wish it were not so – is that the potential of the free-range system is not consistently realised.


A common response has been to suggest that the physical health problems that are found in UK free-range hens occur only rarely, and are sporadic or unfortunate accidental events. However, recent evidence from just three welfare measures – mortality, injurious pecking and bone fractures – suggests this is not a realistic portrayal.

The most comprehensive information, from more than 1,000 free-range UK flocks, is on mortality at the end of lay. Figures from different studies suggest average mortality rates of between 8.1% and 11.2% in free-range systems, but with wide variation between farms. A very few flocks get to end of lay with mortality of just 4%, but rates of more than 20% or 30% are not uncommon.

Four recent studies of more than 350 free-range flocks report some severe feather pecking by the age of 40 weeks in 75% of flocks, and evidence of significant plumage loss by end of lay in 52-77% of flocks. Based on reported rates of pecking taken by direct observation, many birds will receive more than 4,000 severe pecks in a lifetime.

In addition, many independent studies show the average percentage of fractured birds within free-range flocks varies from approximately 45% to more than 80%, with an overall average of about 66%.

Recommendations for better hen welfare

  • Consumers must be encouraged to support further improvements in hen welfare. The biggest danger of the recent media attention is that it will confuse consumers who will then stop purchasing free-range products. Many consumers realise that birds in enriched cages lack some behavioural freedoms, but they expect free-range eggs to come from hens that have behavioural freedom and good health. They are entitled to expect free-range to meet its potential and they will feel misled if this is not the case.
  • Assurance schemes should use welfare outcomes to identify producers who require training or assistance to manage their flocks better. High-welfare branding currently indicates that certain resources or facilities are provided, but it should also mean that the producer is meeting targets for the care and management of its birds. This should include targets set for mortality as recorded at the processing plant.
  • Independent, accurate information needs to be provided to guide consumers through the ever-growing range of branded free-range eggs. With so many different producer groups, retailers and assurance schemes setting different targets it is difficult for the consumer to know what they are buying. Welfare NGOs could, for example, explain why some eggs now come from hens with intact beaks, hens with trees on the range, hens fed corn-based diets and so on.
  • A stakeholder forum should be established to debate how truly innovative housing systems that provide consistently better welfare and which are easier to manage could be designed, tested and rolled out. These may not be free range.
  • All stakeholders need to engage more with the breeding companies to address issues about the genetic suitability of modern breeds for the housing systems they live in.


Bristol University has combined all these measures (mortality, injurious pecking and bone fractures), and summarised the situation for the average free-range hen.

By the end of lay, 10% will have died. Of the survivors, 42% will experience both a fracture and a significant number of severe pecks, 22% a fracture and 20% severe pecks only. Only 12% of surviving birds will be unharmed.

The most generous view might be that there is a significant welfare impact for only half the birds affected. Perhaps the other half meet painless deaths, recover quickly from a very small fracture, or experience one of these events just hours before depopulation. But even with this interpretation of the figures, more than half of free-range hens experience a significant welfare insult.

Perhaps this is only to be expected? After all, death is part of life, and accidents do happen. We need to benchmark what we could reasonably expect.

Take mortality – at the end of lay a hen is 20% through her potential lifespan of eight years. Comparisons with other species (including humans), suggest that mortality at this stage of life should not exceed 2% if good preventive health measures are in place. More realistically, perhaps, the targets published by most breed companies suggest that mortality should not exceed 4%, a figure that is often achieved in cages.

Free-range hens are therefore dying routinely at rates that are two or three times higher than they should be, and on some farms at rates that are more than eight times greater.


One response to the media coverage has been to argue that “while these [predation, disease and injury] welfare outcomes may be compromised by living outside, they are more than made up by being able to forage in a natural environment in the fresh air”.

But good performance on one welfare indicator cannot be used to offset problems in other areas. Defenders of the battery cage historically argued that the health benefits of the cage offset the need of the bird to perform natural behaviour.

Both positions are wrong.

Good welfare is achieved only when both physical and behavioural needs are met, as acknowledged by welfare scientists and assessment frameworks such as the Five Freedoms or Welfare Quality. Injured or sick birds cannot make use of or enjoy the facilities provided by a free-range system.


How has this situation arisen and what can be done about it?

Partly, the industry is a victim of a starting point it wouldn’t choose. The free-range system is not impossible to manage well, but it is very difficult. If systems were designed from scratch, taking current knowledge of the physical and behavioural needs of the hens into account, then non-cage housing that provided birds with large “winter gardens” or “veranda” areas for foraging, perching, exploration and dustbathing might be a good solution for UK farms, particularly those in wet and exposed areas.

These would be easier to manage than an outdoor range, providing protection from disease, predators and rain. The litter would stay dry and friable and the birds would have access to natural light and fresh air as they do with the impressive Rondeel system from the Netherlands.

Another issue is the great variation in performance between different farms. Flocks vary (sometimes unpredictably), but so do farms (often predictably). Some farmers do a great job, taking every opportunity to improve knowledge and produce flocks with very low mortality rates and few, if any, injurious pecking problems. But other farms have consistently poor outcomes.

Everyone agrees that good management is paramount, but information on management is not widely used as a tool for improvement. Assurance schemes set standards, but have possibly been too inclusive and lenient. The reputation of an entire sector can be affected by poor standards on some farms.

The issue of keel bone fractures is more difficult, as it relates to the bird as well as the system. Keel fractures also occur in enriched cages – although at much lower rates – and even the most dedicated farmer would be hard-pressed to know what to do to eliminate this problem. Nonetheless, fractures are painful and they restrict bird mobility, even once the fracture has healed, so solutions are needed.

There are no easy answers here as so few breeding companies produce all strains of modern bird for worldwide production. They balance many breeding goals and so developing robust genotypes that can cope with UK free-range production systems may not be top of their list.


The challenge for the free-range sector is to realise its own potential. There are signs of progress with new revised standards issued by the Lion brand and Freedom Food. Datasets on animal-based measures, including mortality, are becoming available via the Assurewel project, and producers are using new advice available from Featherwel. This will provide a potential tool for improvement.

Many individual producers, producer groups and retailers are developing high-welfare branding for their free-range eggs. This is all good, but there is a risk of masking the really substantial welfare problems mentioned above by making more trivial and cosmetic improvements.

More on this topic

Free range system challenged

See more