Animal rights activists who broke into a poultry farm owned by UKIP spokesman for agriculture Stuart Agnew and ‘waded through them with torches’ in order to take photographs have been blamed for causing the deaths of a number of birds.
Protesters linked with the Hillside Animal Sanctuary entered Mr Agnew’s RSPCA Assured free-range laying unit in North Norfolk overnight in late 2015 to film footage inside the hen house.
The footage, which showed some birds with feather loss, was sent to a journalist who passed it onto the RSPCA. The charity immediately launched an investigation.
Mr Agnew, whose farm was closely inspected by the RSPCA, said that in the days following the break-in, egg production dropped and bird mortality increased to the point that a vet was consulted.
“With subsequent knowledge of the time and date of the illegal trespass by Hillside’s activists, we now know the likely cause,” said Mr Agnew.
“The photos taken by Hillside show wilfully inconsiderate individuals rousing my hens in the dead of night. By wading through them, frightening them with torches, handling the birds and displacing them to pose them for photographs, these irresponsible individuals caused our birds to think that they were being attacked by predators.”
In a statement, the RSPCA said the flock had suffered from enteritis - a common disease which affects the gut of the bird and is usually accompanied by diarrhoea - which can result in feather loss.
“Sadly, farm animals do fall sick from time to time and what is important is that they receive vet treatment swiftly.
“The farm records clearly showed that the farmer had sought veterinary attention without delay - in accordance with the RSPCA welfare standards - and the flock was treated with antibiotics,” the statement said, adding ‘no major welfare concerns were found’.
“The birds were also being let outside during the day to range and being housed inside at night, in accordance with the RSPCA’s standards for free range hens,” it added.
“It is always upsetting to see birds that have experienced disease and feather loss and, whilst standards are in place to minimise these risks, it is not always possible to mitigate them entirely.
“A camera crew entering a hen house in the middle of the night, using a bright torch light, will cause the birds to be distressed and flock together which can make things appear worse than they actually are.”
Mr Agnew said he was concerned the protesters entered the hen house in the middle of a national Avian Influenza outbreak, when strict biosecurity protocols must be followed.
He added: “Hillside Animal Sanctuary depend upon public donations to keep their business afloat. As a fund raising exercise, terrifying egg laying hens, under veterinary supervision, to the point where several die and many stop laying eggs has to be a questionable activity.”