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Laying hens - farming (egg production)

Laying hens in a free-range system © Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA Photolibrary

Commercial laying hens are moved to laying farms just before they start laying eggs, at around 16 weeks old. They’re typically kept until 72 weeks old, when egg production and quality declines.

Production systems

Commercial laying hens are kept in one of the following types of system.


Battery cages

Barren battery cages were banned throughout Europe from January 1st 2012, but ‘enriched’ battery cages are still legally permitted. Battery cages now have to provide 600cm squared useable space per bird, less than the size of an A4 piece of paper each, and limited facilities for perching, nesting and scratching. But we don’t believe they meet the full needs of the birds.

Each wire cage typically houses around 80 hens, and there may be as many as 9 rows of cages stacked on top of each other.

Laying hen perching in a barn system © Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA Photolibrary

Barn systems

In barn systems hens have freedom and space to move around within a building. Perches are provided for roosting, as well as material to dustbathe and forage in, and nest boxes. Some systems are ‘multi-tier’, providing additional levels to use above the ground. 


Most free-range hens on commercial farms live in buildings like the barn system, but have access to the outside through openings called ‘popholes’. EU laws require that free-range hens must always have access to an outside area with adequate vegetation during the daytime.


Egg production statistics

Around 36 million commercial egg laying hens were kept in the UK in 2013.

In the UK the proportion of eggs produced in the different systems in 2013 was:

  • 51 per cent* of eggs produced in battery cages
  • 3 per cent* in barn systems
  • 46 per cent* in free-range systems (of which 2 per cent were organic systems). 

*figures rounded up/down.

Consumers are buying more boxes of free range and barn eggs, but 60 per cent of eggs used as ingredients in products like mayonnaise, cakes and sandwiches are still from hens kept in cages.

If you’re concerned about laying hen welfare, then find out how you can help.

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