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Could Free Range Actually Be Bad For Chickens?

We know keeping chickens in cages is a no-no, but the jury is out as to whether free range systems are a much better alternative.

There's long been a push to phase out battery cages in favour of free-range systems, defined as a space where chickens have outdoor access.

Amid campaigns urging shoppers to buy eggs and meat from free-range chickens, few have stopped to ask if the chickens actually like being free range.

One person who has considered this is Victoria's former chief vet Dr. Charles Milne. Last Friday Milne left the role and gave his final interview to the Sydney Morning Herald. He claimed free-range systems cause chickens more harm than good.

Chickens
How do the chickens like to live? Photo: Getty Images.

"Chickens are related to forest-dwelling birds. They don't like open spaces,"  Milne said.

"Free-range can deliver huge welfare problems."

READ MORE: Cage Hens And Factory Farming To Be Banned Under Greens Animal Cruelty Overhaul

"Instinctively as people, we anthropomorphise animals and think they must prefer free-range because we would."

Milne said free-range spaces deprive chickens of their environmental and emotional needs.

The RSPCA disagrees with the claims that chickens don't like open spaces.

Scientific Officer for Farm Animals at RSPCA Kate Hartcher, said chickens like open spaces, as long as they are sheltered.

Chickens
Chickens are inquisitive and like open spaces, as long as they are sheltered. Photo: Getty Images.

"They are prey animals and they like to be able to shelter from animals so they are able to find food, but it is not a case that free range is a bad thing at all," Hartcher told 10 daily.

I would disagree that free range is always negative.

The RSPCA has an approved farming scheme that's been designed specifically to meet the needs of birds. These involve both indoor and outdoor systems with adequate lighting and good air quality.

"They need a good environment where they can perch, forage, dust bathe and clean their feathers every few days," Hartcher said.

"They are curious and intelligent animals and for a good outdoor environment they need shade and shelter." 

Animal welfare organisation Voiceless said there are over 25 million hens and millions of male chicks that are used by the Australian egg industry annually.

The organisation also describes chickens as "highly social animals with complex cognitive abilities".

Chickens
The RSPCA says open spaces aren't always bad. Photo: Getty Images.

In a research paper released in 2017, Voiceless said "alternative production systems come with their own welfare concerns and should not be considered as easy substitutes for battery cages". This includes free-range systems.

Voiceless lists a number of pros and cons for free-range systems. While it's deemed positive for chickens to have outdoor access, current free-range standards do no require hens to have quality outdoor cover nor do they ensure hens will actually venture outside.

READ MORE: Clucking Hell -- Could Your Backyard Chooks Be A Biohazard?

"The new standard does not require hens have access to quality outdoor covers, such as trees, shelter and shade cloth, which is crucial as hens require security from perceived predation and weather protection," the paper reads.

"All of these factors impact on the ability of hens to access the outdoors, and therefore, impact negatively on the hen’s welfare."

One point all agree on is the need to phase out battery cage systems altogether.

Cage systems should be phased out. Photo: Getty Images.

Chickens living in cage systems are often anxious and develop chronic pain from a lifetime of living on unstable and uneven floors.

Cage systems prevent chickens from spreading their wings and can also contribute to the spread of disease.

"Generally, the less space per bird, the poorer the welfare of the bird. Birds need enough space to move around, build leg strength and perform their normal behaviours," Hartcher said. 

"We need to phase out cages. Chickens are inquisitive and active and they need space to stretch their wings and flap their wings, which they are unable to do in conventional battery cages."

Contact Siobhan at skenna@networkten.com.au