The real lives of free range chickens and how to make them happier
The term ‘free range’
is often used in advertising these days. It is usually accompanied by images of sunshine and green pastures with flocks of healthy chickens living a happy life.
However, the interpretation of the term and the reality of a range where poultry roam free can be quite different. There can be practical reasons that make it difficult to give poultry a good quality natural environment.
1 The climate varies
The sun does not always shine and the grass is not always green. The sun may be blisteringly hot and the ground like concrete, bereft of vegetation. It could be deep in snow for months of the year. In this country, it is more likely to be windy, overcast and muddy underfoot for about half of the year.
In advertising, poultry are always pictured on the most idyllic of days in prime condition. However, anyone with poultry knows the cycle of life includes seasonal moults where birds can look very scruffy, and the wear and tear of old age.
2 Free range is limited
The term ‘ free range’ implies unlimited freedom to roam. However, as with all farmed livestock there are limits on just how far a chicken can go. Even herds of free-ranging wild animals like bison in North America or elephants and antelopes in Africa are often confined by man-made structures like National Park boundaries and roads or environmental barriers like rivers, lakes, sea or mountains.
When the term ‘ free range’ was first used to describe the keeping of domestic poultry commercially, it sometimes referred to hens that were free to move around but were still inside a shed.
This is now known as ‘barn-housed’ or ‘barn-raised’. Barn-raised birds are able to move at will within the confines of the building, but remain protected from the extremes of weather and from predators. There is an unlimited supply of food and water and, in the case of layer hens, access to perches and nests for laying.
New Zealand has an animal welfare definition of what is meant by ‘ free range’ for the commercial layer hen industry. For eggs to be labelled free range, the flock must comply with and pass inspection for criteria laid down by NAWAC, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee in the Animal Welfare (Layer Hens) Code of Welfare 2012 .
This criteria is a useful starting point for anyone with a backyard flock.