One of the largest free-range egg farms in the UK has been developed near Cranbrook by the same company which saw its plans for a new facility near Horsmonden shelved following stringent local opposition.
Fridays Ltd now produces a million eggs a week at its Combwell Farm site after a two-year upgrade plan saw its original layout replaced by three huge multi-tier sheds.
The sheds, which replaced 12 smaller hen houses, measure up to 850ft long with the largest housing around 64,000 chickens, in what critics have described as ‘high-rise urban living for hens’.
But Fridays, whose eggs are certified as free range, claim the new sheds offer higher standards of welfare for the birds alongside greater efficiency.
The company points out that each individual hen can go outside whenever it wants for as long as it wants and, depending on the weather, Fridays expect 40 per cent of chickens on the range at any one time during the day.
A spokesman for the company said: “The redevelopment of Combwell Farm has allowed us to invest in better welfare for the hens and more efficient hen houses.
“The new systems allow us to look after the hens far more effectively than the outdated older designs did.
“Combwell Farm is RSPCA Assured and Lion Quality scheme accredited and has been a free range farm for 25 years.”
The sheds have been installed to meet the surging demand for free-range eggs.
A total of 172,180 chickens are now reared on the farm, up from 95,000 prior to the expansion, producing an estimated 4,500 tons of manure each year, which is collected via conveyor belt.
Chicken food is distributed via a mechanised feeding line while their eggs are taken away by conveyor belt.
Isobel Hutchinson at lobby group Animal Aid told the Sunday Times: “This is intensive farming, with the chickens living in incredibly cramped conditions with limited access to the outside.”
The Somerset free-range producer Blackacre Farm Eggs has mounted a campaign against the multi-tier system, describing it as ‘high-rise urban living for hens.’ It wants eggs produced by such systems to be labelled.
Compassion in World Farming’s Scientific Manager, Phil Brooke, said: “It is better if you keep laying hens in small groups, but the important thing is that all free-range birds in all systems, including multi-tier, have more space and can perform a range of natural behaviours which are not possible in cages.”
Fridays, which is based in Cranbrook, is a family-run firm and one of the three largest egg producers in the UK, employing 270 workers across Kent.
The company had previously developed plans for a new facility to be located in the fields adjacent to Pullens Farm on the edge of Horsmonden.
However, the plans led to strong opposition from local residents and the release of footage by Animal Aid showing the alleged mistreatment of chickens supposedly at a Fridays facility.
Despite denying the video was behind the move, Fridays withdrew its planning application two days after its release on November 13 citing ‘technical’ reasons.