Egg company director jailed for animal welfare and hygiene offences

The former director of a free-range egg company has been jailed for two years and three months for animal welfare and hygiene offences which led to the deaths of approximately 2000 hens.

Peter Armitage, 41, was sentenced at Wick Sheriff Court today where he was also banned from keeping animals for 15 years.

Armitage had owned and operated an egg laying unit trading as Caithness Free Range Eggs Ltd. His operation was based at Lochquoy Farm, Durran, by Castletown, Caithness.

His 24-year-old former employee Kyle Mackay was given a Community Payback Order requiring him to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work.

Mackay, who was only 17 at the time of the offences, was employed as the farm manager and was in charge when Armitage was not working.

Armitage and Mackay had previously pled guilty to causing unnecessary suffering to approximately 2000 adult hens by failing to provide them with sufficient food and water, resulting in their deaths. They also pled guilty to allowing pigs access to hens, resulting in them attacking, killing, and consuming some of them.

Armitage also admitted failing to keep the premises clean and maintained in good repair and condition, failing to ensure that adequate procedures were not in place to control pests, fed pigs with eggs and eggshells and allowed pigs and chickens to access and consume broken eggs.

He also failed to take reasonable measures to ensure the needs of approximately 6000 hens were met and a suitable diet and environment was provided to allow them to exhibit normal behaviour patterns and house them apart from other animals and protect them from suffering, injury, and disease.

The offences occurred between September 2016 and September 2017.

Mackay pled to a further charge of failing to provide sufficient food and water to a calf which died.

Speaking following the sentencing, Andy Shanks, Procurator Fiscal for Grampian, Highland and Islands, said:

“The animal welfare and hygiene failings at Lochquoy Farm caused unnecessary suffering and pain to thousands of birds and introduced a significant public health risk through the supply of potentially contaminated eggs to wholesale and retail outlets across the Highland region.

“Peter Armitage and Kyle Mackay’s convictions were down to the collaborative multi-agency working involved in investigating and gathering evidence of these offences.

“I would like to thank Highland Council, the Animal & Plant Health Agency, and the Scottish Government Poultry Unit for the part they played in getting this outcome.

“We expect the highest standards of our food producers and are committed to working with enforcing authorities to ensure that those who do not meet these standards are held to account.”

The court heard the company came to the attention of Highland Council following an anonymous email on 7 July 2017 which stated:

‘Rats and dead chickens lying everywhere the place is disgusting they need shut down, this place is not up to standards for any animal to live in, the poor chickens look like they are dying.’

An unannounced inspection was carried out by Highland Council Environmental Health and the Animal & Plant Health Agency on 18 July 2017

The inspection found the farm to be in a poor state of repair and very dirty. There were dead birds and parts of dead birds visible as they walked around.

Pigs were roaming around the outbuildings and chicken houses and there were chicken carcasses lying out in the open. Pigs were spotted with chicken feet and feathers hanging out from their mouths.

One of the chicken sheds was carpeted with what looked like a whole flock of decomposing birds. Chicken carcasses were found within the egg collection areas there and trays of collected eggs on benches were covered in bird faeces and rat droppings.

A farm worker said that the chickens had been dead for ‘about a month and a half.’

The following day a second inspection visit was made. This inspection found that the poultry and pigs had access to bait boxes which contained rat poison.

Following a conversation with the Environmental Health Officer Armitage indicated he would voluntarily cease trading with immediate effect and not offer or supply any eggs for sale pending further engagement with him to rectify the issues.

The Senior Veterinary Inspector instructed Armitage to stop feeding the pigs raw eggs and prevent them from accessing the hen houses. He served a movement prevention notice on Armitage.

On 21 July 2017 Environmental Health issued Armitage with a Remedial Action Notice (RAN) under the Food Hygiene (Scotland) Regulations 2006. This effectively re-enforced the voluntary closure status of the business and statutorily prohibited the operation of the egg grading and packing unit and the supply of eggs for sale.

Subsequent inspections and welfare monitoring visits uncovered further issues and eventually there was a voluntary depopulation of the site on 5 September 2017.