Animal welfare laws broken every day in the UK, critics say

Two white chickens are hanging upside down from a person's hand
Chickens held upside down, photo: franz12 via Canva

Catching chickens by their legs is illegal in the United Kingdom, but it still happens every day, animal welfare organizations said on Wednesday. 

Fourteen animal protection groups asked the UK government in a letter to confirm that catching chickens by their legs is illegal under the Welfare of Animals (Transport) (England) Order 2006, and to enforce the law that forbids the handling method to end the painful practice.

The groups said that despite the law, two official UK codes of practice, which farmers use to guide their operations, appear to encourage the illegal practice of catching chickens by their legs.

Because of these codes of practice, the Broiler Code and Laying Hen Code, catching chickens by their legs has become standard industry practice in the UK, even though it is illegal, the organizations said.

Crushed lungs
“At an already distressing and often painful time for these chickens, they are grabbed by their legs and flung upside down, with producers often carrying six chickens per hand,” Pru Elliott, senior campaigner at the animal welfare organization The Humane League UK, said.

“Chickens don’t have a diaphragm [muscle] like us, so being carried upside down causes their internal organs to crush their lungs, and on top of that, intensively reared chickens have very fragile legs and joints,” Elliott said. 

“Carrying them like this is causing huge amounts of suffering and the Government isn’t doing anything to stop it,” he added.

Every day in the UK, 3.1 million chickens are transported to slaughter. As far as the animal protection groups can tell, most big farms practice catching chickens by the legs, which means chicken farms “are breaking the law millions of times a day.” 

Edie Bowles, a solicitor for Advocates for Animals, said it was unacceptable to see laws broken so widely. She added that the UK government is compounding the problem by itself “encouraging unlawful activity.”

Alternative method to catch chickens
The organizations proposed an alternative method called upright catching which is currently being taught to Dutch farmers by the animal welfare organization Eyes On Animals

The upright method sees chickens caught with both hands placed around the body, holding the wings closed. 

“The Upright Catching Method is common sense. It’s how the public would want and expect animals to be handled, and how anyone with a pet chicken would pick them up,” said Nicola Glen, UK Inspector for Eyes on Animals. 

“It’s not complicated, but it is voluntary, so it’s a question of how committed companies are to the wellbeing of the animals, and it will stay that way unless the government starts to enforce the law,” she added.

The letter to the UK environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, was signed by The Humane League, Eyes on Animals, Compassion in World Farming, World Animal Protection, Humane Society International, Animal Aid, Four Paws, Animal Equality, Open Cages, PETA, Catholic Concern for Animals, The Mahavir Trust, The Animal Advocacy Project and Naturewatch Foundation.

Asked about the accusations of not enforcing the law, the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said: “All animals, whichever system they are kept in, are protected by comprehensive and robust animal health, welfare and environmental legislation.” 

“The Animal Welfare Act 2006 also makes it an offence either to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering or to fail to provide the welfare needs of the animal,” Defra told The Animal Reader in a mail.

Defra did not go into detail about catching chickens by their legs.

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