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Carrying chickens by their legs should remain unlawful, say UK campaigners

<span>Battery-farmed hens at a farm in England. Chickens and turkeys weighing under 10kg should not be carried upside down around farms or while being loaded or unloaded, according to current rules.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Henderson/Alamy</span>
Battery-farmed hens at a farm in England. Chickens and turkeys weighing under 10kg should not be carried upside down around farms or while being loaded or unloaded, according to current rules.Photograph: Mark Henderson/Alamy

Proposals to legalise the carrying of chickens by their legs in the UK would represent an unacceptable dilution of animal welfare standards and the first such weakening of regulations in the area since Brexit, campaigners have said.

The government’s Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) has made the recommendation despite acknowledging it to be a “welfare compromise” that can cause “pain, discomfort and breathing difficulty” leading to distress and injuries such as fractures and dislocations.

Earlier this month, the environment secretary, Steve Barclay, said: “We are committed to maintaining high animal welfare and food standards. Since leaving the EU, we have put in place strong controls on imports, and we are using Brexit freedoms to strengthen animal welfare standards even further by banning the export of live animals for slaughter.”

But the AWC proposal is for the retained European Transport Regulation 1/2005, which prohibits lifting chickens by their legs on farms and during loading and unloading, to be amended for a period of five years so “it is legally permitted to lift chickens, and turkeys weighing less than 10kg, by two legs”.

Serena Conforti, advocacy officer at the Animal Law Foundation, said “The AWC’s recommendation is the first open suggestion of removing an EU animal welfare protection since the UK left the EU in 2020. This is despite the fact the government not only made promises not to dilute standards, it claimed that the UK would use its freedom to improve welfare standards. The current illegal and inhumane handling of chickens in the UK is a stark reminder of the need to prioritise animal welfare in our society.”

The 2019 Conservative manifesto said that Brexit would provide an opportunity to “raise standards in areas like workers’ rights, animal welfare, agriculture and the environment”.

Animal welfare charities said carrying chickens by their legs is already widespread, despite being illegal. They argue that the codes of practice set out by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which explicitly permit “leg-catching”, are in contravention of the law. The Animal Law Foundation has issued a pre-action letter to Defra setting out its legal case that the codes of practice endorse illegal handling and so must be changed.

Cordelia Britton, head of programmes at the Humane League UK, said: “Rather than encouraging farmers to give their chickens the small dignity of responsible handling when they are dragged off to slaughter, the animal welfare committee has suggested legalising cruel leg-holding and slashing important standards which are already ignored. I am frankly appalled. Chickens are sensitive animals who deserve respectful treatment and should not be hauled around like objects.”

Kipster, a Dutch poultry farm that produces carbon-neutral eggs, has calculated that the additional cost of handling chickens upright is €0.0004 (£0.0003) per egg.

The AWC recommendation said: “While acknowledging this to be a welfare compromise, AWC considers that a reasonable time period is needed to allow data on the relationship between carrying methods and welfare outcomes to be gathered and analysed and for different methods to be examined and trialled.”

The government has already diverged from European legislation with respect to protections for the environment and human health post-Brexit.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world. All farm animals are protected by comprehensive and robust animal health and welfare legislation and it is an offence to cause any captive animal unnecessary suffering.

“We have received this report from the independent Animal Welfare Committee and are carefully considering its findings before we set out next steps.”