In recent years there has been an increased public awareness in the cruelty involved in factory farming. Following this, there has been a large consumer push towards free range products – mostly eggs and pork. While free range may alleviate some of the welfare concerns, it is far from an answer to the suffering these animals face.
Free range eggs may be viewed as the cruelty free option, but in reality they should be named the ‘marginally less cruel’ option. Free range hens are still kept in confinement, and restricted from their natural behaviours. If it were up to them, they would spend their days exploring, foraging, bathing, nesting and perching in trees. This is a luxury not even free range hens get.
As egg production machines, the hens are kept in flocks much larger than they would naturally prefer. Social hierarchies, import for the hens wellbeing, cannot form in these structures. A result of this is increased aggression among the flock, including cannibalism. To reduce this, all hens are de-beaked as chicks.
Free range fails to provide extended survival for the hens. Just like battery hens, when the hens output starts to decrease after 18 months, she will be killed well short of her 8 year lifespan. Similarly, the male chicks (50% of all chicks born) are just as useless in free range farming as they are in battery farming, and are still killed at birth.
The good news for pigs is that sow crates will be banned from 2015. Even after this however, the use of furrowing crates will be allowed to continue. While free range farming allows pigs to escape from these conditions, just like layer hens, there are still greater problems for them.
And again, just like layer hens, pigs are prevented from carrying out their natural behaviour even in free range systems. The large herd sizes prevent the pigs from establishing hierarchies, and overcrowding can still lead to cannibalism. One behaviour pigs really enjoy – rooting, or digging with their nose – is especially troublesome to a farmer as it can ruin the land. To prevent this, pigs are fixed with a nose ring. The ring works by causing pain to the animal whenever it tries to root.
Just like pigs from a factory farmed system, free range pigs are slaughtered at 20 weeks old – much, much younger than their lifespan of 15 years.