Free range hens have been forced to live indoors and denied access to daylight and space by dozens of farms, including those monitored by the RSPCA, across the country.
As many as 71 farms denied their ‘free range’ flocks access to the Great British countryside between June 2018 and January 2016, while a further 37 limited the birds ranges to below the requirement of four metres per bird, slightly less than two parking spaces.
The RSPCA, which requires each bird to have five metres of outdoor space, also said some farms had breached its regulations.
The Soil Association, however, which requires its farmers to give their hens ten metres of outdoor space said none had breached the requirement.
Shocking images of ‘free range’ hens kept in darkness and sliding through their own faeces at an RSPCA Assured farm in Norfolk were published in 2016.
Free range eggs are the UK’s most popular, selling more than four million cases between April and June this year.
Dozens of hens, including those in RSPCA Assured farms, have been denied access to daylight and space as farmers have blocked them from going outside. Pictured: ‘Free range’ hens at an RSPCA Assured farm in Norfolk in 2016
As many as 71 farms denied their ‘free range’ flocks access to the outdoors between 2018 and 2016, a freedom of information request showed. Pictured: Hens at an RSPCA Assured ‘free range’ farm in Norfolk in 2016
The shocking figures were uncovered by MailOnline following a freedom of information request.
An astonishing 41 farms were also shown to have denied their flocks the required ranging space more than once, including a farm in Cheshire which broke the regulations five times.
A farm in Staffordshire, one in Warwickshire and a third in Somerset also broke the regulations three times in the two year period.
When asked, RSPCA Assured, which farms can sign up to if they follow higher welfare standards, admitted that ‘on rare occasions’ its free range flock requirements had been broken by farmers.
‘On these occasions’, said a spokesman, ‘appropriate action would have been taken’.
‘The only exception would be if there was a genuine welfare reason why the birds needed to be kept indoors, such as Avian Influenza (Bird flu).
‘In such cases DEFRA guidance must be followed’.
Farms are required to remedy the breach, by giving their birds access to the outdoors for example, on the day the inspection is carried out. Otherwise, the birds eggs are re-classified as barn.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that there had been no prosecutions for breaches concerning free range eggs.
An astonishing 41 farms were also shown to have denied their flocks ranging space more than once, the freedom of information request showed, while a farm in Cheshire broke the regulations five times. Pictured: Hens at the ‘free range’ farm in Norfolk in 2016
The Animal and Plant Health Agency, which inspects egg farms every year to ensure they are complying with regulations and collected the data, has refused to name the farms denying their hens space and access to the outdoors.
In an internal review it said that to name the farms would not be ‘fair’ processing of personal data because the farms ‘would not reasonably have expected their details to be made public’.
They also said that it was not in the public interest to name the farms, claiming it could ‘mislead the public into believing those eggs from breached premises are to be avoided in the future.
RSPCA Assured said that some of its farms were also found to have breached the requirement of five metres of outdoor space per hen, or about the size of two parking spaces
‘However, these breaches are normally addressed when an inspector is on the farm.’
They added that to publish the names could lead to an ‘adverse working relationship’ between the agency and farms producing eggs.
The Information Commissioner’s Office has upheld the decision, stating that public interest ‘favours maintaining the exemptions’.
A spokesman for the APHA said: ‘Sites that fail to comply with regulations must give birds immediate unrestricted access to their ranges.
‘If they continue to fail to meet the standards we expect from them, then producers will be referred to Defra Investigations Services and may be subject to prosecution.’
Free range eggs are the most popular in the UK, where just over 4million cases were sold in the first four months of this year, compared to caged where 3.3million were sold.
Organic eggs, where chickens are kept in smaller flocks and have a variety of vegetation in their ranging areas, and barn eggs, where birds are allowed to roam freely in a large shed, are also sold in the UK.