2nd June 2023

A crack appears. There’s movement underneath, a flickering of new life. The crack widens and a tiny feathered friend slowly pushes their way out. Their fragile pink flesh and feathers are still wet from the inside of the eggshell as they falter then quickly find their feet. A little life so vulnerable deserves all the love and respect we can offer, as the world they’re waking up to is cruel, and their days in it most likely numbered. 

Life is cheap when it comes to chickens, and school hatching projects are as problematic as many other areas of the egg industry. Providers sell schools an incubator, six or seven eggs and let them get on with it until the chicks hatch inside the cramped, plastic dome in a bright, often noisy classroom. 

How ethical is it? 

Hatching project providers are flinging the word ‘ethical’ at practically every page of their website, as if writing it makes it true. The actual truth is that bringing chicks into the world in a totally unnatural environment with no mum or shelter from any of the alien sights and sounds of a classroom is the opposite of ethical. 

While intending to show children the wonder of the life cycle of hens, school hatching projects fail to teach them to respect it. Instead, they send the message that it’s okay to treat animals as throwaway commodities who are here for us to do whatever we want with. 

“Chickens have complex social bonds yet when used as classroom tools they're denied everything that's natural to them,” explains Hopefield Animal Sanctuary in Essex. 

Besides concerns for the chicks, there are also reports of salmonella and E.coli in their droppings when incubated, placing a direct threat to children handling them.

Who’s driving demand? 

Despite the plight of chicks involved in hatching projects, the practice is still gaining popularity. Eggucation, Living Eggs, The Happy Chick Company, and Incredible Eggs are leading the UK market. 

Their prices are upwards of £200 – from £260 for an Eggucation package – and with classroom budgets already tight, many teachers end up paying for supplies out of their own pocket. Veterinary care costs are not included. 

The ruthless profiteering of these providers is causing multiple issues for animal welfare organisations, rescue centres and schools themselves who are naïve to the amount of work involved, adding more pressure to already time-poor teachers. 

Education or entertainment? 

Showing chicks being born for real in the classroom may seem like a great way to invest a science budget. But is it? 

If a school day is just 6 or 7 hours, it’s less than a third of the hours in an actual day. So, there’s more chance of the children missing the chicks hatching, than seeing it. Schools are putting entertainment before education without knowing how educational the experience will be.

People for the Ethical Treatment of animals’ (PETA) agree, saying: “Such displays are ignorant, archaic, and cruel, and it’s misleading for them to be presented as educational.” While the RSPCA reveals in its policies on animal welfare, “such programmes of study do not promote responsible attitudes to animal care and husbandry.” 

Founder of The Retreat Animal Rescue Billy Thompson adds: “All it teaches children is that there’s an egg one day and a chick the next, they don’t see the development. Children already know chicks come from eggs – Easter teaches them that every year. “

Are the chicks okay though?

For chicks, being hatched in an incubator carries serious risk of deformity because vital organs can stick to the sides of their shells when the eggs are not turned properly as a mother hen would do. 

Teachers and children don’t have the expertise to care for unborn/baby chicks. “They often end up very sick or dying before birth,” says campaigner Holly Rattigan in her Change.org petition. They also miss out on bonding with their mum who coaxes them to cheep before they’re even born.

Providers assure people that the chicks go on to have good lives, but very few are rescued. If they’re sent back to farms, the chicks are slaughtered for fear they’ll bring in infection PETA’s online resources reveal. Males are doomed from the start as they don’t lay eggs and can be noisy neighbours if rehomed. 

“It is sometimes necessary to control the number of males through humane culling,” admits Incredible Eggs in its FAQs. Though it’s important to dispute this, as there is no humane (kind and caring) way to take the life of an animal who wants to live.

It’s a sad fact that children aren’t taught the truth about the chicks they handle, and how males are mostly suffocated or thrown into meat grinders alive or worse, as is normal in the egg industry. The Humane League lays out all the facts here.

What are the alternatives? 

There are various ways to make learning about the lifecycle an interactive experience, with none of the responsibility, worry or nagging guilt that comes with adding living animals to a classroom full of children! 

  • Have your own bird box put up with a camera inside advises Compassion in Education. Then you can watch them build their nest, feed, hatch and interact with their chicks and return every year.
  • Swap chicks for clicks by watching videos that don’t limit lifecycle learning to the chicken and the egg. There are plenty of nest box live streams you can find online including:
    • The Woodland Trust is streaming live footage of two rare osprey hawk nests here, and so is the RSPB here
    • English Cathedrals has a list of peregrine webcams on cathedrals here
    • And BirdCAMS.live has hundreds more!
  • Visit an animal sanctuary to learn about animals and their lifecycles in a more natural and appropriate environment. Find one near you on Facebook here.
  • Download an app. Humane education charity P.E.A.C.E. has developed a mobile app called ‘Chick-It-Out’.
  • Source PowerPoint presentations, posters, photos, diagrams, and reference books. Animal Aid has developed a set of free resources available here and teaching site Twinkl offers more here.

The animal protection community says…

Many animal shelters and rescue centres get too many requests to take on chicks after hatching projects have finished and they quickly run out of space. The Retreat Animal Rescue is inundated, says Founder Billy Thompson: “It puts a massive burden on sanctuaries. It costs money, as well as space that comes at a premium, and in one day alone we were offered 60 chicks. We were offered over 700 chicks – ducklings and chickens – last year. We couldn’t take them all, so we had to network.”

Animal Aid says: “Shockingly, the primary science National Curriculum encourages the use of hatching projects. We have written to the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, urging her to remove this endorsement but no action has been taken.”  

The RSPCA references a long list of animal welfare issues on page 13 of its fieldwork investigations report here.

How to object to a hatching project

Children need to understand that responsible animal care is a lifetime commitment and that animals cannot be discarded like yesterday’s toys, so please object if this madness comes your way. 

If you’re a parent or teacher, Surge Activism advises that you should write to the Head, school board, or raise it during a Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) meeting to voice your disapproval. Speak to the teacher leading the project about the care and re-homing provisions and check out the provider.

You could act straight away by sharing this post with teachers and parents. Don’t feel obliged to adopt chicks but if you do, research it first. When taking on a male, bear in mind that morning crowing will always be an issue, but not all cockerels are aggressive. Just like humans, no two are the same. 

If you do object, suggest alternatives. Virtual tools are less expensive and more effective but remember to always question the welfare and future of the chicks, because very few get out of it alive.

Freedom for Animals investigates, exposes, and campaigns to end animal exploitation in the UK and beyond. You can support our work and help use fight for a world without cages by making a donation today.