Over 28 million hens (28.78 million spent layers) were killed in 2008 (England and Wales) at around the age of 1 year old (27.42 million in 2007). As the hens are at the end of their productive lives they are of little economic value to the farmer and seen as a by-product of the egg industry which require disposal.
As few slaughterhouses accept laying hens they are frequently transported by road on long journeys. Feed, but not water, may be withheld for up to 12 hours prior to slaughter (1). The Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or killing) (Amendment into the 1995 Regulations) (England) Regulations 2007 now permits the killing of ‘end of lay hens’ and end of life breeder hens by exposure to gas on the premises where they have been housed. It also allows the Secretary of State to authorise the killing of birds by exposure to gas elsewhere than in a slaughterhouse. The culling of ‘end of lay hens’ on the home farm could dramatically reduce the incidence of welfare insults they experience because of catching and transport (1).
Those reaching the slaughterhouse are removed from their crates and hung upside down shackled by their feet to a moving line whilst still fully conscious. Their heads and neck are dragged through an electrically charged water bath designed to stun the birds, rendering them unconscious. The moving line then takes the birds to an automatic neck cutter. Birds are then bled before entering a scalding tank to make the plucking easier. Birds often experience pain and struggle while hung in shackles, and they may suffer during the slaughter process. It is essential that a sufficient stunning current is used and that both carotid arteries (the major blood supplies to the brain) are cut to reduce the risk of birds regaining consciousness during bleed-out and subsequently entering the scalding tank whilst still alive.
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