Leading vets agree: caging hens is unacceptable

December 02, 2017

You might think that holding the Government title of Chief Veterinary Officer (CVO) would mean it's your duty to protect and care for all animals. Sadly, it seems that the UK's CVO, Nigel Gibbens, may not have read the job description.

Speaking at a recent egg industry conference, he was quoted in Farming UK saying that the push towards cage-free systems for laying hens was a 'regrettable move' and that 'cages have a lot going for them.'

If you've ever seen the inside of a caged hen farm, you'll know that this is indefensible. Hens in cages spend their lives standing on wire mesh floors, jostling for space with their cagemates. No comfort, no escape. Cages are cruel, full stop.

Well, we weren't going to let these dangerous comments slip under the radar. So we got in touch with some respected vets to help us get our message heard, coordinating a joint letter published in The Times today.

Below is the letter in full.

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Dear Sirs,

Significant progress has been made for animal welfare in recent years, with the majority of UK food businesses committing to move away from cages for laying hens within a specific timeline.

This market shift came about in response to increased consumer demand for higher welfare standards, combined with pressure from animal welfare groups.

However, the UK Government's Chief Veterinary Officer, Nigel Gibbens, speaking at a recent industry conference, has described these cage-free commitments as a "regrettable move." Addressing concerns around the potential spread of avian influenza (AI) in free-range systems, Mr Gibbens said "colony cages have a lot going for them."

To hear such a brazen endorsement of cages by the UK's foremost veterinary advisor - a position which should mean pioneering the safeguarding of the welfare of farm animals - is extremely disappointing. The caging of any animal limits their behaviour due to overcrowding and severe restrictions of space which is seriously detrimental to their welfare. Colony cages do not provide adequately for foraging, perching or nesting, which are fundamental species-specific behaviours for a hen.

The avoidance of the spread of disease can be solved in other ways than by keeping hens in cages. There are management options such as winter gardens (verandas), enclosed areas which are sheltered from the outdoors but which still allow for freedom of movement and behaviour. These offer a viable solution in times of outbreaks and should be encouraged rather than continuing to push cages as an ethical option for hens.

As vets, we should be driving for improvements beyond cage-free systems, not promoting dated systems that cause suffering to millions of sentient birds.

We are calling on Mr Gibbens and the Government to take a more progressive position on hen welfare instead of bowing to an industry which is reluctant to change despite consumer demand and ethical reasoning.

Signed,

Marc Abraham, BVM&S MRCVS

Ines Ajuda, DVM BVSc MSc

Vicky Bond BVSc, MA MRCVS

Martin Cooke MSc, MA VetMB MRCVS CertVPH(MH)

Dr Bryony Dixon, BSc PhD BVSc MRCVS

Dr Mark Jones, BVSc MSc (Stir) MSc (UL) MRCVS

Andrew Knight, MANZCVS DipECAWBM (AWSEL) DACAW PhD FRCVS SFHEA, Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics

Dr. Steven P. McCulloch, BVSc BA PhD DipECAWBM (AWSEL) MRCVS, Recognised European Veterinary Specialist in Animal Welfare Science, Ethics and Law

Dr Richard Saunders, BSc (Hons) BVSc FRSB CBiol DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVS

Dr Pete Wedderburn, BVM&S CertVR MRCVS