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Exposing the cracks in school classroom hatching projects

Amy Robson, a Bishop’s Stortford primary school parent, reveals the ugly side of ducklings and chicks hatching in classrooms – and how they often don’t live ‘happily ever after’

With the best intentions, teachers across the country are following National Curriculum guidelines and buying hatching kits for their classrooms.

Costing around £350 each, a hatching project is where fertilised eggs are supplied by a poultry farm and placed into incubators to develop in the classroom.

If the timing is right, over the first few days children have the opportunity to witness the hatching of chicks or ducklings. Once hatched, children can then enjoy handling and interacting with their new fluffy friends for a week or two.

When the project ends, the farm collects the chicks/ducklings, along with their cages, heat lamps and incubators. From first-hand experience of having a daughter in a school which hatches ducklings as an annual event, I can tell you that the children absolutely LOVE IT! So what’s the problem?

Despite the poultry farms’ marketing of ‘high welfare’, ‘ethical’ and ‘responsible’, these school hatching projects can actually cause physical harm to the birds. It is difficult to provide optimal conditions in a classroom incubator and chicks may be poorly developed when they hatch. As a result of the eggs not being properly turned by a mechanical incubator, chick’s organs can stick to the sides of the shell and leg deformities are frequent.

This duckling hatched from a Bishop’s Stortford primary school’s project with a broken leg. Picture: Amy Robson
This duckling hatched from a Bishop’s Stortford primary school’s project with a broken leg. Picture: Amy Robson

One of the ducklings in my child’s school last year hatched with her leg appearing to be back to front and she struggled to walk. The other ducklings turned on their injured sibling – a brutal demonstration of survival of the fittest, but not a lesson anyone intended the young children in the classroom to learn!

I took the injured duckling to The Wildfowl Sanctuary in Godmanchester for specialist rehabilitation treatment. Here, an exasperated avian veterinarian educated me further on these hatching projects. As it turns out, the little duckling with a broken leg might actually have been one of the fortunate ones.

After hatching, the risk of injury to the chicks/ducklings increases again once the children are allowed to handle them. Even with the most vigilant adult supervision, it is not possible to ensure that young children won’t cause any injury to the tiny birds. Small children simply lack the skills and understanding needed to handle newly hatched creatures which are so delicate and fragile.

When the project is over and the hatchlings return to the farm, despite what many of the school newsletters might tell you, they often don’t live ‘happily ever after’. So what does happen?

Amy Robson’s ducking, ‘Lucky Duck’, received specialist treatment at The Wildfowl Sanctuary in Godmanchester. Picture: Amy Robson
Amy Robson’s ducking, ‘Lucky Duck’, received specialist treatment at The Wildfowl Sanctuary in Godmanchester. Picture: Amy Robson

The vast majority of male chicks/ducklings are deemed surplus to requirement and are immediately suffocated in gas tanks. The females are divided into ‘layer birds’ for eggs or ‘dinner birds’ for human consumption, and any excess birds are gassed in their infancy and used for pet food.

It seems most teachers, parents and children are blissfully unaware of what is stated on the kit supplier’s website: “If the rearing of farm animals for food or the culling of excess cockerels is something you find unacceptable, hatching projects are unlikely to be the right choice for you.”

The RSPCA even refers to these projects as ‘disposable teaching tools’ and advises against using them.

Some schools have felt uncomfortable about the inevitable fate of their hatchlings and opted to have them rehomed as domestic pets. However, the majority of the birds have been bred in such a way that they were never destined for longevity.

These chickens and ducks rapidly become very ‘breast heavy’ (for meat) and many of them struggle to walk in adulthood. Some of the rehomed ducks have needed specialist ramps to enable them to get out of their ponds because their breasts are too heavy to lift their weight out of the water.

Ultimately, these are not domestic birds to keep in your backyard – they have been selectively bred over generations for optimum meat and egg production.

If schools are prepared to use these projects to teach about life cycles, then perhaps an honest education about our food systems should also be taught. The children get told “our feathered friends have safely returned to a home at the farm”, painting a falsely idyllic storybook-style picture which is rarely any part of modern-day animal agriculture.

If you feel these school hatching projects might not be something you wish to support, there are a few actions you can take which will hopefully make a big difference:

• Write to the headteacher of your participating school (and the PTA if they fund these projects) expressing your concerns.

• As an alternative, suggest that school funds are better spent by placing nesting boxes on their grounds with cameras inside so that children can learn about birds’ life cycles by viewing wild hatchlings with parent birds caring for their young.

• Email Education Secretary Gillian Keegan at Gillian.keegan.mp@parliament.uk requesting that the reference to hatching and rearing chicks be removed from the National Curriculum science programme.

And finally, don’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers: speak up and share your knowledge, allowing people to make an informed decision as to whether they still wish to support these hatching projects once they have all the information.

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