Hatching & Rearing Chicks

Hatching and rearing chicks to become the next generation of free range laying hens is a skilled craft carried out by a small number of expert businesses using the lastest technology.

Each breed of hen used in free range egg production has different genetic traits such as the amount of eggs they lay or the speed they grow.

There are a number of breeds renowned for excellent egg production which are perfectly suited to the UK’s free range egg laying sector.

Chicks for free range egg farms are bred at hatcheries – large, specialist facilities capable of incubating fertilised eggs on a mass scale.

Only females can lay eggs, so a process of chick sexing takes place just minutes after the fertilised eggs hatch.

A team of hatchery staff handle the chicks to separate the males from the females. This is an art learnt through experience and training.

The expert staff can see tiny differences in the chicks which give an indication of sex.

The differences will depend on the breed of the bird but can be in colour or even the shape of the bird’s bottom.

Just like humans, female chicks need to build up their immunity to harmful illnesses so will receive vaccinations before being transported on a lorry to a specialist farm where the chicks are reared. They are then known as pullets.

Everything happens very quickly. The chicks will be sexed, transported and placed into the pullet rearing farm within 48 hours of hatching.

On the pullet rearing farm they are kept warm, fed, watered and vaccinated against any diseases that could harm them.

They will typically remain on the pullet rearing farm for 16 weeks before being taken to the free range egg farm.

As the male chicks hatched can’t lay eggs and are not suitable for meat production, they will be used to feed reptiles and birds.

In the UK there are strict standards hatcheries must abide by to ensure male chicks are humanely culled as quickly as possible after hatching.

If the chicks are to be used as snake food, for example, they will then be transported to a separate facility, sorted and frozen before being sold to pet owners.

Technology to sex eggs ‘in-ovo’ (before they hatch) is at an advanced stage and the free range egg sector hopes to see laying hen hatcheries being able to deploy this advancement as soon as possible.