Britain has a long and proud history of animal welfare. The home of the world’s first animal welfare legislation, of the RSPCA, and the anti-vivisection campaigns of the past, we’ve always prided ourself on protecting the many millions of animals who call this country home.
Poll after poll across all walks of life, affirm our nation’s concern for animal welfare, lending truth to the view that the UK really is a nation of animal lovers. That’s why I was so pleased, as were so many others, when battery cages for laying hens were finally outlawed in 2012. After the tireless campaigning of animal charities and so many concerned constituents up and down the nation, the notion of animals trapped in steel-wire boxes, so cramped they could barely move, were cast into the rubbish-tip of history.
What may come as a surprise for many is that somehow, despite the battery cage ban, there are still millions of egg-laying hens living their entire lives in cages in the UK today. Yes, these cages are more spacious and contain enrichment like perches and roosting areas, but the simple fact is that they still cause hens atrocious and unnecessary suffering. ‘Enriched’ cage is a loose term indeed.
Hens are lively and energetic animals and are inquisitive by nature. In a cage their lives are utterly confined - they struggle to walk freely, to extend and flap their wings or easily perform natural behaviours like dust-bathing. The only place they have to explore or forage in is a floor of bare-wire mesh. Trapped in this monotonous prison and squeezed in with other animals, feather-pecking is common, where bored birds will bite each other in irritation, sometimes stripping animals almost completely of their plumage.
One hen, called Beatrice, was lucky enough to be rescued from her life in a cage. When she arrived at her new home she was practically bare - almost all her feathers had been yanked out by other birds. Her greyish-pink skin was exposed all over her body, her long scrawny neck was naked and shocking. If this hen had been a pet I’ve no doubt that there would be a case for cruelty and neglect for the owner, but with ‘enriched’ cages birds regularly end up in this state. After some love and recovery, Beatrice is sprightly and healthy; she is safe, she is happy, and her feathers have grown back, glossy and auburn. Once more she is recognisably a hen. In fact, she is more than just a hen. She is the poster girl of all hens, the mascot and impetus of a massive campaign to end cages!
A staggering fourteen million birds remain in cages, in this nation of animal lovers. How does this still happen? Fourteen million birds who will only leave their cage to be taken to a slaughterhouse. Can you imagine? No egg is worth that.
That is why I’ve tabled Beatrice’s Bill in Parliament, a Bill that would ban cages for hens in the UK for good. And the good news is the support for this Bill is enormous. According to a report published in 2020 by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, 76% of consumers want the banning of cages to be a priority. Food industry giants such as Nestlé, Kraft-Heinz and Greggs signed a letter supporting the bill. Celebrities like Joanna Lumley, Sir Tony Robinson and Bill Bailey have endorsed the bill on social media.
Such a ban would also put us in line with many of our European friends and the EU has committed to phasing out cages for animals by 2027. Countries such as Austria, Switzerland and Germany have banned cages for hens. It’s not just Europe either where this is happening, in 2021, Nevada became the ninth US state to ban the use of cages for laying hens.
Although corporate commitments are already helping British egg farming transition towards cage-free, without legislation there’ll inevitably remain millions of chickens in cages, supplying eggs to those businesses which are too small and numerous to campaign against. The time to ban this cruel practice, once and for all, is now.
For the sake of the hens, and for the wishes of the people, I urge the Government to do the right thing and back Beatrice’s Bill, so that soon we can proudly say that we have made a change for good. A change that helps millions of animals each and every year and a change that helps us continue to be a Government and a nation at the forefront of animal welfare advances.
Henry Smith MP