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Scrambling to survive: Egg Farmers caught by new Euro rules

Dave Harvey | 15:55 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011



Caged hens at a Somerset farm


Does this look cruel to you?

Four hens to a small cage, standing all their lives. For many, battery hens became the first battle of the ethical food war. But for Pete Wood, who runs this small family egg farm in the Chew Valley, it was a case of ignorant townies missing the point.

“I think Free Range Eggs won’t last,” he tells me. “They’ll fall victim to disease, just like they did in the 60s. That’s how the cages came in; you put the birds in cages, the disease disappears overnight.”

A caged bird, in other words, is a safe bird. Safe from all but two of her pecking companions, safe from foxes, most of all safe from diseases like red mite which can run through a free range flock like wildfire.

“But but but but!” I can hear you shouting at your computer.

“They can’t flap!”
“They can’t scratch!”
“They have to stand on sloping chicken wire all their lives!”
It could be the cry of any hen lover, free range farmer or just casual fan of Aardman’s Chicken Run movie. In fact, these are the words of Joyce D’Silva, a campaigner with Compassion in World Farming.

It’s an argument that’s already run for 25 years, and shows no sign of stopping.
But Pete Wood, and thousands of egg farmers in the West Country and beyond, have lost.

Next year, his cages will be illegal. Across Europe, conventional cages will be banned from Jan 1 2012.

Not that this will see every bird running free across the Chew Valley or the Mendips or the Cotswolds. No, there are new cages, licenced by Europe. They have much more space, take 60 birds each, and have creature comforts.

Nestboxes, like this one in the picture.
Even plastic scratching areas.

But they’re expensive. Pete Wood has been quoted £250,000 for one henhouse. He has four, and his farm is small. One egg man I spoke to in North Dorset has shelled out £10m for his “enriched colony”.

So what? I hear you cry. It’s the price of progress, and when bearbaiting was outlawed, people lost work.

What really irks farmers like Mr Wood is the belief that other European nations won’t be as law-abiding as the UK. Already France and Spain have asked for a ‘derogation’ for two years. Animal welfare experts believe inspection will be light. And eggs from these hens will compete with Mr Wood’s eggs in the British market.

So far, it’s the usual story of British farmers having to follow new Euro laws to the letter, while their Mediterranean competitors shrug them off.

But there’s more to eggs than, erm, eggs.

A quarter of the eggs we ate last year, some 2.6 billion eggs, went into processing.
Cakes, meringues, sponges, mayonnaise, dips; think about it, eggs are everywhere.

Another third, over three billion eggs, were eaten in restaurants, cafes, and B&Bs. When you last stopped for an egg and bacon roll, or woke up to the full English on a weekend away, did you ask for free range?

If Mr Wood is right, the Great British Breakfast might soon feature Spanish eggs alongside the Danish bacon.

Free range hens in Somerset

Understandably, many farmers are now ditching cages altogether. Down the road near Wincanton, I meet Dan Wood, who has decided to go 100% free range.

“That’s the way our market is going,” he explains to me, “more and more shops want local, free range eggs they can trust. So that’s what we’ll do; we’re businessmen in the end, and free range provides a clear market to work in.”

It’s a familiar story. Go upmarket, sell quality free range eggs to the local, independent shops and farmers can stay ahead. But if they try and play the global market, Britain’s increasing welfare standards may price them out altogether.



  • Comment number 1.

    The Greater European Empire can just vacate the area! It's about time our spineless government stopped grovelling to every diktat and instruction from these useless, unelected bureaucrats at the centre of this monstrous Superstate! The kids of this country didn't die in the mud of Flanders, the skies of 1940, the deserts of North Africa, the beaches of Normandy, to name but a few, to see this country handed over to these useless individuals! Enough is enough - now wait for the BBC censor to remove this!

  • Comment number 2.

    well said i totally agree
    Iam a poultry farmer and i wont i say i wont abide by any eu directive
    my customers know i love my birds i care for them and i treat them 100% well
    i will use the methods used by my fathers and for fathers before me with british genuine care and attention
    my birds are well and produce qaulity product thats what my custoers will get and thats what i produve no legisaltion out of brussels from some facist dictatorship is ever goin gt otell me how to far mand how to suppy my customers
    they come back for more time after time
    so EU stick you rules and regulations up your rhone

    and i sa yto all you british house wives the bst food i nthe world is producd in the uk so girls and boys buy the best kept and best produced foods and stop buying foreign muck becuase it is cheap nasty badly prepared badly looked after and badly fed muck
    if you want a pound of leeks youll get a pound of leeks too
    the best outside wales !!and thats the way it will be

  • Comment number 3.

    How can farmers stay in business with there input cost going up so much in a short time? And then have to compete in a unfair market that is beyond there control!!

  • Comment number 4.

    Do we really want to stay as members of a club which is so shoddily run that it cannot ensure that some of the members break the rules - not once but again and again?

    Great Britain has a proud history at the vanguard of animal welfare, unlike counties such as Spain and Portugal. For many years, we have been more likely to see the animals that give their lives to be on our plates as so much more than economic production units. Our farmers have a heritage of morality and husbandry, an understanding that a healthy, near-natural life for an animal was the best guarantor of quality and a decent sale price at the market. That was high farming.

    How different it is now for those that see only a very blinkered vision of food production - of chasing prices and value down to the bottom of the market because they do not have the wit to understand the link between a truly well fed populace and its ethical probity.

    We should - unilaterally if needs be - ban imports of all food (from other EU counties or further afield) that do not meet our declared standards. If this causes problems for our less developed neighbours, let them squawk and bleat like the beasts they choose to mistreat.

  • Comment number 5.

    It always used to be the case that the egg-producers built these barns for the farmers they wanted to run these production lines for them. Has that arrangement come to an end?

  • Comment number 6.

    "Nestboxes, like this one in the picture.
    Even plastic scratching areas.

    But they’re expensive. Pete Wood has been quoted £250,000 for one henhouse."

    I would like to see a full sized picture of this henhouse and more details of how many hens etc..
    £250,000 for one seems very expensive.

  • Comment number 7.

    Rather than complaining about EU regulations the UK should take a more positive attitude towards their implementation.
    Firstly they should oppose any derogation.
    Secondly they should insist on traceability of any imported eggs including those in liquid form, to farms which conform to the regulations. Any eggs without that traceability should be banned from importation.

  • Comment number 8.

    Time we pulled out of Europe. The same story as normal. Europeans imposing rules that only we will obey so we lose out to other nations.
    It happens all the time.
    Not sure whether its our government that are stupid (actually thats a given), the other countries that are deliberate cheats (erm, another given), a conspiracy hatched by european governments and business to kill the uk off (seems a bit of a strange idea) or most likely a deliberate attempt to kill all British industry as some sort of retribution for our successful past.

    What ever we seem to allow our government to go along with it.
    I don't like battery hens, I always buy freerange and will continue to do so, but just look at things:
    a) Farming standards here obey the TOP standards of the EU requirements, other countries - France especially - ignore all farming standards and continue with barbaric practices
    b) We have a rule about fair play with all business purchasing - hence we always see our government buying foreign because it is 2p cheaper on the headline price - other countries include other things - strategic requirements, unemployment costs, special rules and requirements - hence in Germany it is ONLY German products the government/police/ambulance etc. buy, in France only French, in Italy only Italian, in Spain only Spanish....
    c) We pay a fortune for this every year - money we could spend on defence, hospitals, lower taxes
    d) We lose business elsewhere in the world - who will buy a Jaguar when the British government prefers to buy BMW?????
    e) We could trade more efficiently with Europe from the outside - without the stupid rules we could be more efficient, cheaper and better, this would allow us to trade - in exactly the same way as the Chinese, Americans, Africans, Indians, Australians, Russians do. You don't have to be in Europe to trade with Europe, in fact being outside it will make us better at trading with Europe and the rest of the world.

  • Comment number 9.

    and i sa yto all you british house wives the bst food i nthe world is producd in the uk so girls and boys buy the best kept and best produced foods and stop buying foreign muck becuase it is cheap nasty badly prepared badly looked after and badly fed muck

    Yes, I buy British - but NOT JUST FOOD, if we all bought British AND made sure our government, councils, police, ambulance, army et al bought British we would have no unemployment here
    How many farmers bleating about buying british food do so from a japanese 4x4?

    I remember sticking a note on a farmers 4x4 saying I'd buy British beef as his sticker suggested when he bought a British 4x4.

    We ALL pay for unemployment, so when you think you get a 'bargain' foreign car, food item, piece of clothing, toy etc. then think the bargain has just put up your tax rate!

  • Comment number 10.

    To Auldhairy, and anyone else interested in the new cages, you may get a fuller idea from the full TV film which is on the iPlayer here:
    As you say, expensive kit. Should we pay for it anyway, and ensure we have the latest standards in chicken welfare?
    Interesting to see how many people think this is Europe's fault. We - the UK - did vote for it, both our ministers and the large majority of public opinion which felt conventional cages were cruel. Does that change anything?

  • Comment number 11.

    I have been mistaken in thinking that this type of intesive farming had already been changed, BUT BUT
    What sabout the Factory Farmed Dairy Cows at Kemble
    Shurly this should be BANNED they are intelligent animals
    and must suffer trauma from this treatment .QUESTION do these Cows conract TB ????


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