The former director of a free-range egg company has been jailed for a string of animal welfare and food hygiene offences which led to the deaths of 2,000 hens.

Highland Council’s Environmental Health Service and the Animal Plant and Health Agency (APHA) commenced a joint investigation in 2017 following reports of significant food hygiene and animal welfare concerns at Caithness Free Range Eggs Ltd, Lochquoy Farm, Caithness.

The lengthy investigation uncovered numerous and serious breaches of animal welfare and food safety legislation which led to a report being submitted to the Procurator Fiscal’s Office.

At Wick Sheriff Court on 1st December 2022, Peter Armitage (former director of Caithness Eggs Ltd) was sentenced to 2 years and 3 months in prison and banned from keeping animals for 15 years. His former employee Kyle Mackay was given a Community Payback Order requiring him to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work.

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

Armitage had also pled guilty to four additional charges that included:

  1. failing to keep the premises clean and in a good state of repair,
  2. failing to take adequate steps to control pests,
  3. feeding pigs with eggs and eggshells and
  4. failing to take reasonable measures to protect them (hens) from suffering and disease.

Mackay pled guilty to a further charge of failing to provide sufficient food and water to a calf which resulted in its death.

Wick Sheriff Court heard the offences occurred between September 2016 and September 2017.

The court heard the company came to the attention of the council following an anonymous email on 7 July 2017. It 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.”

On 18 July 2017 an unannounced inspection was carried out council environmental health officers and the Animal and Plant Health Agency. The team discovered dead birds and parts of dead birds as they walked around the farm, which was in a poor state of repair. They also witnessed pigs roaming around the outbuildings and chicken houses, some with chicken feet and feathers hanging out of their mouths.

One of the chicken sheds was also found to be “carpeted” with what looked like a whole flock of decomposing birds.  Bird carcasses were also found within the egg collection areas, where trays of boxed 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 found the hens and pigs had access to bait boxes which contained rat poison. Armitage ceased trading with immediate effect and was told to stop feeding the pigs raw eggs and prevent them from accessing the hen houses.

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.”

Councillor Graham MacKenzie, Chair of Communities and Place Committee said:

“This was one of the most complex and difficult cases undertaken by the Environmental Health team. The officers involved were faced with quite harrowing animal welfare issues on site and found almost a total disregard for the basic hygiene levels that would be expected in a food business.”

Alan Yates, Highland Council Strategic Lead Officer for Environmental Health, said: 

“The Service welcomes the significant sentences which we consider reflects the seriousness of the animal welfare and food safety offences. The conditions on the farm resulted in the suffering and death of thousands of birds and created a significant public health risk through the supply of potentially contaminated eggs to businesses across the Highlands. Officers from environmental health responded quickly to the initial complaint and took prompt, appropriate action to deal with the terrible hygiene and welfare conditions found.

“As shown in this case, officers will pursue prosecution where significant offences are found and where public health and animal welfare is put at risk. Food businesses and farms must give due attention to their legal responsibilities.”

He added: “This was a complex animal welfare and food hygiene case with multiple issues that required close cooperation between the agencies involved.  Professional veterinary opinion and forensic pathology provided by the Veterinary Inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) Veterinary Services, in conjunction with inspectors from Scottish Government Poultry Inspection Unit, supported Highland Council Environmental Health officers to ensure an early intervention and successful conclusion to what was a particularly traumatic case.”