RSPCA Assured has said it will introduce new requirements for verandas and natural daylight in its assured standards for laying hens.

The RSPCA hailed the new standard as a ‘huge step forward for hen welfare’, but the measures are likely to be controversial with producers battling against inflationary pressures and low returns.

Who will need to change their system?

Verandas will not be required for existing free-range members of RSPCA Assured, but the assurance scheme said it would “work with industry to look for ways to make this achievable”.

Existing barn producers will have until 1 January 2030 to build verandas and meet the new natural daylight requirements.

From 1 May 2024, new members and those refurbishing sheds whether barn or free-range will be required to provide veranda space and the natural light requirements.

What type of veranda is being asked for?

The RSPCA has described verandas as an additional roofed, but uninsulated, structure attached to sheds with a “fully littered floor”. It provides more space in a semi-outdoor environment for barn hens.

Dr Kate Norman, senior scientific officer and poultry specialist at the RSPCA, said: “There are farmers in the UK and Europe that have already successfully installed verandas or are considering investing in them, which demonstrates how achievable these standards are, even though they may feel challenging.

“When looking at the European farms and research, we discovered that including a veranda resulted in a reduction of the daytime stocking density in the main house. This has welfare benefits such as promoting preening, dustbathing and foraging behaviour and reduces feather damage.”

What about natural daylight?

This standard will be required for both existing free-range and barn members of RSPCA Assured by 1 January 2030.

A technical briefing for the standard says natural daylight openings must correspond to at least 3% of the total floor area of the house and that transparent popholes may help towards meeting these requirements.

In addition to providing light, it must be possible to control the amount of daylight entering sheds “to the extent that darkness can be achieved”.

Dr Norman added: “Natural daylight is not something that is commonly given to laying hens in the UK.

“But giving them natural light provides many welfare benefits. Turkey and broiler producers under the RSPCA Assured scheme are already required to provide natural daylight inside the house, and we have had really positive feedback from many of them about the benefits.

“Especially regarding improvements in bird activity levels, for example, less time lying and more time standing which improves leg health.”

What is the RSPCA saying?

“The new laying hen standards will be a huge step forward for hen welfare,” Dr Norman added.

“Two of the key new standards are the introduction of verandas for barn members and the new requirements for natural daylight for both barn and free-range members, which will come into force in 2030*.

“We recognise these are a big change for some of our members and it’s therefore really important that we give them enough time to make the necessary changes and support and advise them during that process.

“As such, RSPCA Assured has doubled the notice period usually given to members to implement new standards from three to six months, and the RSPCA has allowed up to six years for the more significant changes, such as verandas and natural daylight, to be made.”

What have farmers said?

The British Free Range Egg Producers Association’s Robert Gooch expressed concern about the new measures.

In a statement, he said: “Producers are always looking for ways to improve hen welfare, but there is a serious amount of concern over all the extra requirements being placed on farmers with no obvious financial return.

“While we note the phasing-in period, these new standards will still require significant investment from producers, if not now then in the future, and there is no premium paid for RSPCA Assured eggs.

“It is not sustainable for farmers to continue to invest without being able to balance the books, and those affected will have to consider whether RSPCA Assured accreditation justifies the cost.

“Consultation with producers and BFREPA when drawing up proposals would have highlighted these concerns before they were published.”