Laying hen and pullet standards consultation
Public consultation on laying hen standards for environmental enrichment in the hen house, outdoor ranging distance and flock size.
Soil Association standards are based on scientific evidence and industry best practice. We review them in light of new evidence and information to keep them on the leading edge. We want to ensure that our standards support organic producers to deliver the best animal welfare outcomes and have a positive impact on our broad strategy goals, to protect our climate and nature, and improve health.
We are proposing changes to our laying hen standards based on an independent review of the latest academic reports and on-farm trials.
The Soil Association’s laying hen standards are higher than the EU and UK Organic Regulation in a number of areas. The aim is to achieve:
- The highest levels of hen welfare
- A small environmental footprint
- Viable and practical organic egg production for farmers.
The points of difference between Soil Association and other organic standards currently include:
- More solid floor space per bird in the house, covered with loose litter, to enable the birds to carry out natural behaviours like dustbathing and scratching.
- More elevated aerial perching space to allow natural hierarchical behaviours.
- More than double the amount of space per bird to roam outside.
- Natural shelter, e.g. trees, throughout the outdoor range to help the birds feel safe to explore and forage over the full area. Improved range use has been shown to decrease the risk of negative behaviours such as injurious feather pecking.
- Access to the outdoors from a younger age which gives the birds more confidence to use the range.
- A maximum flock size of 2000 hens vs 3000 hens.
A further point of difference is the way in which we check the standards are having the intended effect in delivering good welfare outcomes. Some of the factors that offer the highest welfare potential, such as freedom to roam and freedom from mutilation (i.e. no beak trimming) require attentive management from experienced staff for the system to work well. We provide training materials for our poultry producer licensees to allow them to assess their birds to a set of welfare outcomes and adjust their management accordingly. During farm visits, our inspectors not only check compliance with resource-based standards but also carry out an independent welfare outcomes assessment and benchmarking of the flock.
To enable organic standards to reflect innovation, we keep our higher standards under review to ensure that there is good evidence that retaining them will have a benefit that otherwise would not be delivered.
One of the most important welfare outcome measures is feather loss due to feather pecking. All types of injurious pecking appear to be a form of normal pecking redirected inappropriately to another bird. If other pecking substrates such as litter are less attractive than the feathers of a neighbour, then pecks may be directed at feathers instead.
Producers have found that a variety of inexpensive objects in the house can promote positive indoor foraging behaviour, which can reduce feather pecking in their flock. These enrichments can include hanging objects or pecking materials, alongside destructible items like netted bales that the birds can manipulate and eventually destroy. Changing these regularly to maintain novelty and making them available in the different areas of the house is necessary to promote interest and accessibility to all birds.
In recent on-farm trials, the provision of novel enrichment with a variety of pecking substrates in the houses appeared to have a positive effect on feather loss, as did the whole-life approach to welfare which matches conditions in the rearing phase with those in the laying phase.
A review of the latest evidence suggests that the good welfare we see in Soil Association laying hens is due to a package of higher standards and best practice but this does not include our flock size limit. We are confident about this because we now have a much larger pool of data than we did at our last in-depth review of our flock size standard, plus more than ten years of experience in carrying out welfare outcomes assessments. Results of a recent two-year multi-site trial have shown that when environmental enrichment is provided and the rest of the Soil Association standards are met, 3000 bird flocks can perform as well as 2000 bird flocks on the key welfare outcome measures. We submit our higher standards to a number of tests to make sure that when we are asking our producers to go the extra mile, it is delivering a clear benefit. In this case, we believe that our higher standard on flock size is no longer necessary to deliver the benefit of good hen welfare.
While house design and enrichment provide welfare improvement opportunities indoors, opportunities should also be available outdoors through the range design and management. The lack of feather loss in the recent trials is also likely to be linked to the foraging opportunities provided by the well-managed outdoor range.
There is good evidence that improved range use can decrease the risk of negative behaviours such as injurious feather pecking. Outdoor foraging also increases the amount of fibre in the diet of the birds which has been linked to better welfare outcomes. Our range management standards aim to ensure that all birds benefit from full and extensive use of the range, and for this reason, we have always specified that the whole area of the range should be available within a reasonable distance from the house. Long narrow strips or pan-handle shapes that require the birds to walk a long way do not encourage good range use and can cause poor ground conditions due to high traffic in certain areas.
We therefore propose to:
- Introduce a new higher standard to require enrichment in the house
- Bring the Soil Association upper flock size limit for laying hens and pullets in line with the EU and UK Organic Regulation, increasing from 2000 to 3000 birds
- Clarify that we require the outdoor range to be available within a maximum distance from the house to encourage good use of the range.
Have your say!
Tell us what you think about our proposals to require environmental enrichment in the hen house, and bring flock sizes into line with the EU Organic Regulation
-  Injurious pecking : Advice from FeatherWel
-  NB. For context, the organic limit of 3000 birds in a flock is less than one fifth of the size of RSPCA certified free range flocks, which limit flocks to 16,000 birds.
-  https://agriculture.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0008/529829/Farmed-Bird-Welfare-Science-Review.pdf
-  https://agriculture.vic.gov.au/livestock-and-animals/animal-welfare-victoria/livestock-management-and-welfare/farmed-bird-welfare-science-review