Chickens are far cleverer than we think. Which is why hens should be given everything from sandpits to seesaws to play with, according to one free-range egg company.
A chicken’s paradise
I’ve been buying ‘Happy Eggs’ for a year now, attracted by the chirpy yellow box and a promise that the hens are ‘guaranteed cage-free’ and ‘as happy as can be’. But what exactly are the ‘best [living] conditions possible’ for these intelligent birds? I went along to Bulbourne Farm in Tring, Hertfordshire (one of around 20 farms that supply The Happy Egg Co) to find out.
Farmer Jean-Paul (JP) Michalski has been working with free-range animals for 27 years (“Britain was the first nation to start putting chickens outside – something to be proud of”) and devotes 120 acres of his farm to 14,000 Happy Egg hens. It’s hard to imagine that space in your head, but take it from me – it’s a lot. I didn’t see a single bird reach the border of its enclosure during my two-hour visit.
As well as a large hen house, where eggs are laid and food and water is on tap, the chickens’ outdoor space is decorated with trees, logs, cut branches, sand pits, dust baths, and plenty of weirdly-shaped natural playing apparatus to perch on. It brought to mind Acitvity World, where everyone held their 10th birthday party back in the 90s.
Brainy birds outsmart toddlers
Why go to such effort for so simple a creature, some people might ask? Well, first off, they’re not simple. It was Bristol University who, in collaboration with The Happy Egg Co (which is owned by Noble Foods), recently discovered that chickens possess mental skills superior to human toddlers. Chooks will: choose to delay a reward for a better one; keep track of numbers up to five just hours after hatching; avoid objects with a dubious structure; and notice when other hens fall out of sight.
“It’s great, because we can use research like that to inform future designs for new outdoor play areas,” said JP. “We’re always looking to learn more about chickens, and change our farms accordingly. A new piece of apparatus will be trialed on one farm first and if the hens respond to it well, it’ll be rolled across all Happy Egg farms.”
The Happy Egg Co believes that the only way to keep chickens happy is to keep them stimulated. “You’ve got to give chickens plenty of options because they’re naturally inquisitive and quite restless,” said JP. “They have to be able to dust-bath for a bit, then have a run around, a stroll through the hen house, maybe a perch under a shady tree… if life was monotonous, they’d soon get bored, and then unhappy. Just like we would.”
Happy hens = tastier eggs
It’s easy to tell whether chickens are happy or not. “I can walk into a chicken farm and know instantly whether there is something wrong,” said JP. “That noise they’re making now? To me it sounds like a pleasant little cackle. Happy hens aren’t scared of approaching humans and will even let you stroke them”. A fact JP proved by proceeding to cuddle a chicken for the next 15 minutes.
“You can also tell a lot about a chicken by the state of their feathers. If there’s good coverage, they’re likely to be healthy and happy – chickens feather-peck each other when they’re stressed.”
JP’s farm is regularly monitored by Noble Foods (you can only qualify as a Happy Egg farm if Noble Foods awards either a gold or platinum star), Defra, Freedom Food and The British Egg Industry Council; pressures which help keep JP’s farm clean and tidy all year round. I expected a waft of chicken excrement to hit me when we ventured into the hen house, but truth be told it smelled only of dust and feathers, thanks to a clever waste disposal systems.
I pay the extra 15-20p for a dozen Happy Eggs, because I know the hens that produced them lead a more fulfilling life than your average free-range bird. But do you also get more for your money in terms of taste? “Oh yes, absolutely,” said JP. “Happier hens produce eggs with a sometimes bigger and creamier yolk, and we get fewer ‘bad eggs’, because they are only produced when the birds are under stress. You’ll also find a higher ‘dome’ to a happier hen’s egg, meaning it won’t spill all over the pan when you’re frying it.”
Adopt a hen
But lurking underneath all this happiness is the sad fact that laying hens only live to 14 months old. Naturally they can reach 15 years of age, but as they get older chickens eat more and produce eggs deemed unacceptable for supermarket shelves (the shells might be too thin, for example). Being as they are unproductive, the majority of ‘old’ laying hens are slaughtered and sold off to faraway lands for purposes other than eating.
JP (pictured here with me and pet dog Sadie) sells as many ‘old’ hens as he can, to avoid them being slaughtered. “There are 36,000,000 laying hens in the UK… far too many to re-house, I’m afraid. But by advertising locally we do manage to find new homes for some of our chickens. One lady bought 100 from me recently and rang the next day all excited, saying ‘oh my god I woke up this morning and I’ve got 100 eggs!’”
The key message I took away from my farm visit was the fact that everyone can win in the egg industry. As JP summed up: “If your birds are healthy and happy, then quality eggs and consumer confidence will follow naturally. It’s only if you mistreat your chickens that problems arise further down the line.”
Do you buy Happy Egg eggs? How do you think laying hens should be treated? Talk to us in the Comment box below…
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