Free-range chickens still suffer

Chickens huddled near a small opening in the side of a chicken shed.

Don’t be conned by free-range chicken

When you hear the term free-range chicken, you might have an image of those birds having a happy existence, wandering outdoors and enjoying life. While free-range certainly makes a huge difference to the welfare of pigs and hens used for egg production, it is a different story for chickens bred for meat.

Many Kiwis try to buy and eat free-range chicken meat. People want a good life for the animals they consume, but the reality for most chickens sold as free-range is a short life of suffering. Caring people are being misled into paying more for so-called free-range chickens who may never see the outside of a shed until they are taken for slaughter.

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Even when chickens have access to the outside, in large industrial systems many will not use an outdoor range. 

  • This is primarily due to the breeds of chicken used. In Aotearoa, even on free-range farms, all chickens bred for meat are of the same fast-grow breeds. They grow so fast they struggle to walk. Chickens can suffer painful lameness and other health problems, which deter them from moving far. They spend most of their time sitting.  
  • When there are around 40,000 birds in each shed, a chicken may have to get past hundreds of others to access the outdoors. Chickens can be quite territorial and those around the ‘pop-holes’ may also discourage less confident birds from accessing the outside.
  • Chickens are kept locked inside the shed for the first three weeks of their lives, meaning they only have outdoor access for the last two to three weeks before being killed. ​
A wide angle show of a chicken shed. Their are long rows of red feeders and water dispensers. The floor cannot be seen as there is so many chickens crammed together. On the left hand side small openings to the outside can be seen.
Image credit – Farmwatch

There is no legal standard for free-range: all that is required is potential access to the outdoors. Chickens have an innate fear of open spaces (where predators can attack) and can be reluctant to go outside when the only option is a barren space, lacking shelter. This leaves these chickens crammed inside sheds, just like their non-free-range counterparts. Studies on the proportion of birds that go outside free-range sheds vary from 2 to 74%.  Even at the highest end of the scale, that’s one in four birds who spend their whole lives in a crowded shed, sitting and standing in excrement-soaked litter. ​

A white chicken sitting very close and looking at a hidden camera. Behind them the chicken-sized openings to a chicken shed can be seen. A few chickens are sitting by the door, no other chickens are outside.
Image credit – Farmwatch

When a more suitable outdoor range is provided, such as by Bostock Brothers, with plenty of trees and bushes where the chickens feel safer, more of them do go outside. Even so, because they are still of a fast-grow breed, these chickens have restricted mobility and other health problems. Bostock is, however, looking to use a slower-growing breed of chicken who will have much better welfare.

Even if a farm has fewer chickens and better outdoor range, birds still suffer. These fast-grow breeds struggle to walk and can die because their bodies grow faster than their organs. 

The best thing you can do as an individual is to keep chickens, and all animals, off your plate. While people continue to eat chickens, however, the most significant change we can make to the welfare of chickens is to get better breeds. Then free-range really would start to be meaningful.

That’s why we are calling on food businesses to sign the Better Chicken Commitment.


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