CIWF Logo Food Business
Search icon

Who is the laying hen?

Laying hens are gregarious birds with elaborate social behaviours, living together as a flock with a distinct hierarchy or “pecking order.” Naturally they spend their day foraging for food, scratching the ground looking for insects and seeds, maintaining their plumage condition via dustbathing and preening, and perching in trees at night to avoid predators.

They also exhibit a thorough nest building repertoire from careful nest selection and inspection, to settling and laying their eggs followed by cackling and re-joining the flock. They tend to range widely, using the cover of trees and vegetation for safety from predators.

Hens have an average lifespan of seven to eight years, whereas in commercial egg production they are slaughtered at around one and a half years of age, after their egg production starts to drop.

Caged production

Typically, laying hens are kept in caged systems which include barren battery cages or “enriched” cage systems. Commonly, these systems house many tens of thousands of hens in closed sheds, with the cages stacked in many rows and tiers.

Barren battery cages usually hold 4 or 5 hens with low space allowance - less than the size of an A4 sheet of paper per bird - and the height is just enough to allow the hen to stand. There is no nest where they can lay their eggs and no opportunity for them to express natural behaviours such as spreading their wings, walking, scratching or perching.

Enriched cages - introduced when barren battery cages were banned in the EU in 2012 - provide the hens with slightly more space, a small perch, litter and a nest area so they have the opportunity to perform some of their natural behaviours, but to a very limited extent.

Caged systems fail to properly meet the hens’ physical and behavioural needs; seriously restricting their ability to move around and exercise, let alone perch, scratch and dust-bathe. They deprive animals of their most basic behaviours and are unacceptable in the eyes of the consumer.

Read below to discover more about what laying hens want and how to provide them with a better quality of life.


What do laying hens want and need?

Top 10

Easy access to good food and water

To enjoy a good dust bath

A safe and secluded place to nest

To interact with other hens

A variety of comfortable places to perch

Opportunities to explore their complex environment

To run and flap their wings

A safe, quiet, and high place to rest undisturbed

Shelter for protection

Possibilities to forage, peck and scratch

Providing hens with a better quality of life

No cages or combination systems

Good dust-bathing opportunities

Plenty of space indoors and outdoor access

A variety of pecking substrates

A good light regime, including natural light

No beak trimming

Good perching space

Safe and secluded nests

Converting to cage-free eggs

Many of the world’s most influential food companies have made commitments to move to a cage free egg supply by 2025 or sooner. Check out our latest Global EggTrack Report to see which companies are progressing towards their global, regional or national cage-free commitments.

In order for companies to fulfil their pledges and meet the growing demand for cage free eggs, they need to invest in the right systems, get contracts in place with their suppliers and pace their transition.

Invest in the best

Egg producers need to ensure that they invest in the best systems, so the birds not only have good health and physical condition, but good mental wellbeing and are able to express their repertoire of natural behaviours.

Companies need to work with their suppliers and invest in production systems that are fit for purpose to ensure that the animals experience a good quality of life and are fit for the future too by meeting consumer expectation of what is an acceptable cage-free system. 

Watch the video to find out more...

Future-proofing investment is critical to commercial sustainability and involves preparing for upcoming issues, such as the need to operate without beak trimming and maintaining good feather coverage, and the need to improve keel bone condition.

The cage-free market is well established in Europe, where over 50% of hens are currently reared in cage-free systems. In the US it is rapidly expanding and there are promising signs of emerging cage-free markets in other regions of the world.

However, over 60% of the world’s eggs are still produced in industrialised systems, most using battery cages, so any global company that has made a cage-free commitment in one region of their supply chain must address this issue in other regions too, especially in regions where cage-free markets are still a small proportion of overall production.

Key considerations

Read more about how to design your cage-free housing and how to develop a successful cage-free supply chain below.

Good housing

Good housing

Read more

Important factors to consider in designing your cage-free housing are as follows:

  • The provision of sufficient space to live – the maximum density permitted in the EU for barn and free-range systems is 9 birds/m2, but reducing this to 7 birds/m2 can significantly benefit the hens – giving them more space to move freely. We recommend a maximum stocking density of 15 birds/m2 at the floor level in an aviary barn system.
  • Providing sufficient enrichment materials to occupy the hens such as foraging, pecking and dustbathing substrates, and plenty of perching space.
  • Providing different functional spaces – e.g. separate day and night quarters, with high perches for resting, plenty of nest boxes, and separate activity zones for dustbathing, foraging and scratching; or at least access to a veranda and natural light.
  • Free range systems should have good shade and shelter to encourage outdoor ranging, and a variety of herbs, shrubs, and grasses to satisfy the foraging needs of the hens.
  • It is also important that the pullet rearing house is similar in design to the laying house as this allows the young hens to get accustomed to perching – especially jumping on and off the perches - so they don’t injure themselves. They will also be less fearful of their new surroundings when moved into a similar style of laying house.
  • Future proofing your business – investment is critical to commercial sustainability and will allow you to prepare for upcoming issues such as the need to operate without beak trimming, improving keel bone damage and maintaining good feather coverage, as well as providing more natural light, giving the birds access to verandas and addressing the need to end the unnecessary killing of male chicks.

View our latest resources on housing design here:

Avoid 'Combi' and limited access systems

Avoid 'Combi' and limited access systems

Read more

Why these systems are not fit for purpose

Combination (‘combi’) or limited access housing systems for laying hens feature aspects of both aviaries and conventional cages. They are multi-tiered structures that have doors so although birds can roam when the doors are open, the system converts into a caged system when the doors are closed.

These systems are promoted as offering management and production benefits and are marketed to maximize stocking density and have the ability to be operated in total confinement if market pressures around cage-free production change.

However, these systems are not suitable alternative cage free systems because:

  • The birds can be confined in cages either routinely or permanently, causing frustration and limiting the movement of the hens.
  • Stocking density is comparable to conventional systems so do not provide any more space to live.
  • Key features and equipment to encourage important behaviours such as nesting and scratching are lacking.
  • Movement through the system (within tiers, between tiers, and between rows) is restricted.
  • Limited access systems confine hens to particular areas within the tiers, when they should have access to the full system at all times.

Much of the restrictions/limitations noted above also apply to intensive multi-tier or COMPACT systems.

Half-caged systems, combi-systems, or routinely closing aviaries, and highly intensive COMPACT multi-tier systems, compromise the welfare of the hen and present reputational and commercial investment risk. They are an unwise investment in a system that may be outdated and outlawed well before the end of its commercial life-span.

We advise companies not to invest in these systems, or to modify any existing combi-systems and to invest in well-designed aviary systems as a minimum.

Read more about our guidance on ‘combi’ systems.

Support a cage-free future

Support a cage-free future

Read more

Key factors for a successful cage-free supply chain

We encourage all companies to support a cage-free future by:

  1. Making cage-free your new baseline for both shell and ingredient eggs and publicising this commitment to your customers
  2. Engaging with your suppliers from the start and giving them the confidence to invest in new cage-free systems through long-term contracts.
  3. Ensuring you invest in the right system that is fit for purpose and future-proofed, by providing your suppliers with specific system design requirements (i.e. no combi cages).
  4. Take the consumer on the journey with you - when your customers understand what cage-free really means for laying hen welfare, they are much more likely to choose higher welfare products on shelf. Marketing and promotion is an opportunity and a the key to success!
  5. Lobbying government to help create a level playing field for egg producers so that they are not undermined by cheaper imports (through trade deals) from inferior egg production systems.

Find out more about the welfare policies for UK retailers and how the various certification schemes compare with Compassion’s criteria for higher welfare egg production.

Cage-free compliance, Resources and Awards

Compassion is keeping track of the progress companies are making towards their cage-free commitments - for both shell and ingredient eggs - through our annual EggTrack report.  EggTrack aims to celebrate public commitments and encourages year-on-year progress reporting. Find out more below.

If you want to know more about laying hen welfare and fit for purpose cage-free systems we have developed a range of resources to help you develop a future-proofed cage-free supply chain. And if you have made a commitment to go cage-free you may also be eligible for one of our Good Egg Awards.

Check out EggTrack, explore our Resources, or apply for a Good Egg Award below.


Compassion’s Global EggTrack shows the progress companies are making towards meeting their commitments to purchase 100% cage-free eggs by 2025 (2026 for some businesses in the US).

Find out more
1. EggTrack


Explore our range of practical guidelines, videos, and case studies to help you improve the welfare of laying hens in your supply chain.

Read more
2. Resources

Apply for a Good Egg Award

Since 2007, the Good Egg Award has recognised companies that use or have committed to use (within five years) cage-free eggs or egg products.

If you are going cage-free you may be eligible for an award.

Apply here
3. Apply for a Good Egg Award


Compassion will continue to work with industry to ensure companies develop systems that are truly cage-free.

If you are converting to cage-free egg production and want more help or information, please contact the Food Business team.


You are using an outdated browser which we do not support. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security.

If you have any further questions regarding this, or any other matter, please get in touch with us at We aim to respond to all queries within two working days. However, due to the high volume of correspondence that we receive, it may occasionally take a little longer. Please do bear with us if this is the case. Alternatively, if your query is urgent, you can contact our Supporter Engagement Team on +44 (0)1483 521 953 (lines open Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm).