What does 'free range' actually mean?
The answer depends on what animal you're asking about.
Free-range pregnant sows are kept in groups and are often provided with straw for bedding, rooting and chewing. Around 40% of UK sows are kept free-range outdoors and are able to seek cover from sun or rain in huts on their range.
Free range pigs are often still ringed - a process that essentially pierces the pig's nose so that it will not forage or dig in the dirt (the ring makes digging, a natural pig behaviour, painful).
Male free range pigs are also usually castrated within a few days of birth with no anesthesia to avoid "boar taint" - an unpleasant taste which develops with adolescence.
Unlike free range hen eggs, there are currently no laws in place to define free range milk production, so the term means very little when it comes to diary cows.
You may also see the 'Pasture Promise' label on milk - these farmers have made a clearer commitment to keeping cows in fields for at least six months out of the year.
Egg laying hens
The EU Welfare of Laying Hens Directive states that in order for eggs to carry the 'free range' label, the hens must have ACCESS to an outdoor area during day time hours. The word 'access' is the difference between the image of happy hens used in some adverts and the truth.
Even free range hens are housed in crowded barns in flocks of up to 16,000. Despite having the ACCESS to the outdoor area, dominant hens frequently prevent other hens from ever stepping foot outside. In large-scale free range units, fewer than 50% of the birds regularly go outside. Just like their caged cousins, free range hens are frequently debeaked (the welfare directive allows debeaking of chicks less than 10 days old) to reduce pecking injury and even cannibalism. All commercial laying hens, including free range are usually slaughtered after one year of egg production.
Free-range broilers are reared for meat and are allowed access to an outdoor range for at least 8 hours each day. Free-range broiler systems use slower-growing breeds of chicken to improve welfare, meaning they reach slaughter weight at 16 weeks of age rather than 5–6 weeks of age in standard rearing systems.
Much like chickens as discussed above, free-range turkeys have continuous access to an outdoor range during the daytime, but due to overcrowding, it is not uncommon for many turkeys in the flock to never take advantage of the outdoor space. The minimum requirements for space allow each turkey the equivalent of /3 the size of an opened broadsheet newspaper. When imagining this space, keep in mind that large breed turkeys can grow to the size of a small Labrador.
Like chickens, the free-range label on a turkey does not mean it was not subject to beak-trimming.
Positively, free-range systems often use slower-growing breeds of turkey.