The UK is a nation of chickens

I work on public policy. Many policies – be they small changes to benefits, taxes or public services – might not radically transform individual people’s lives. They are marginal improvements. But it’s important to remember just how many people there are in the UK. Even a small financial boost or time saving is a big win when multiplied by millions of families.

This is also why I think we should care a lot more about farm animal welfare. Britons may in theory care about non-human animals, but the scale of concern does not match the scale of the problem and often the political focus is on relatively niche animal welfare issues. That may well be because many of us see zero farm animals each day: they are out of sight, out of mind.

But look at the UK population of a selection of different species and it becomes obvious why we should care a lot about farmed animal welfare. 

In mid-2018 there were 67 million people in the UK. At the same time, there were a combined 49 million cows, sheep and pigs. If, for example, the 5 million pigs in the UK are living in poor conditions (to put it mildly), then that should be a serious concern.

Most striking of all is that there were 188 million poultry birds (including 124 million broiler chickens and 40 million laying hens). That’s almost 3 for every person, or 9 for every cat and dog. You’d have to hugely discount the welfare of chickens to think that inflicting terrible conditions on 188 million sentient beings was not a big problem.

And those figures are snapshots. Given their short lives, the number of individual poultry birds that live and die each year is even higher. In the UK the figure is around 1.2 billion a year. Globally, the figures are even more astronomical, with 67 billion chickens slaughtered each year – that’s over 180 million a day – and still rising. 

The number of farmed animals also dwarfs the numbers of many charismatic wild animals. Despite public and political concern over fox hunting and badger culling, the number of poultry slaughtered each day in the UK is – at over 3 million – more than triple the estimated total number of foxes and badgers. The number slaughtered each day (often without stunning) is also equivalent to all of the wild ducks, geese and swans in the country. I assume it’s safe to say that there are far more ducks living in giant barns without daylight or bathing water than there are wild ducks. And for every grey squirrel, deer, hedgehog, badger or fox in the UK, there are 30 poultry birds hidden away (mostly with the ends of their beaks chopped off).

Those wild animals are also vastly outnumbered by pheasants. Astonishingly, “an estimated 35 million pheasants and 6.5 million red-legged partridge are released each year in the UK” (note that neither is native to this country). And those numbers exclude birds that die prior to release. It’s also telling that while there are, for comparison, an estimated 1 million hedgehogs left in the UK, “0.9-1.8 million pheasants collide with vehicles each year”.

Finally, there are tens of millions of large fish farmed each year (especially trout and salmon in Scotland), with the scale of this horror show being perhaps particularly under-appreciated. And there are the uncounted scores of millions of wild fish (where catch is simply measured in thousands of tonnes).

It is fortunate for us humans that chickens don’t get the vote. But in a future post I will look at what – if anything – the main parties’ upcoming election manifestos propose to do about farmed animal suffering. When the number of farmed animals is so large, those policies matter enormously.

Human population
Livestock population
Game bird releases (2004) 
Pet populations
Poultry slaughter statistics
Global slaughter statistics (and here)
Wild bird populations (winter peaks)
Grey squirrels
Badgers and foxes (and more)
Scottish fish farm production
UK aquaculture estimates
Individual farm statistics (not used above but also interesting)

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