Additionally, «all the birds had severe lice infestations and appeared to be hungry and very thirsty, spending most of the time attempting to drink from the nipple drinkers and search for food».
Inspectors also identified severe issues with condition of the shed where the birds were kept, from «poor ventilation, poor substrate, broken feeders and water pipes» to «dangerous wire causing the birds to become trapped and the deceased bodies left to decompose amongst the hens.»
In addition to the 1000 hens already found dead in the shed, all 4000 of the live hens were destroyed by authorities after tests of the flock returned positive results for Infectious Laryngotracheitis (ILT) – a highly contagious, respiratory disease caused by a herpes virus.
Deputy Chief Inspector of RSPCA NSW, Aaron Purcell, said Stone had admitted in a recorded interview that he had attempted to put the chickens into a «forced moult», a controversial practice banned in Europe, in which chickens are restricted from food and water towards the end of their first egg laying phase in a bid to increase egg production in later phases.
Stone asserted this «was common in the industry»; however, Mr Purcell said «failing to provide proper and sufficient food is illegal.»
Magistrate Ian Cheetham described Stone’s offending as «objectively serious», resulting in the deaths of more than 4000 birds.
«People who farm animals intensively need to act in accordance with appropriate welfare standards,» Magistrate Cheetham said. «You took on these responsibilities and did not meet them.»
In addition to the Lakelands farm, Mr Purcell said the RSPCA inspected two other establishments managed by Stone, and he received a penalty infringement notice for failure to comply with the regulations relating to cage size and stocking density.
«As a result of that engagement, he destocked all of his properties and as of today he no longer has any birds and is now prohibited from getting any more,» Mr Purcell said.
Court case against hen rescuers continues
While Stone has been convicted, a court case continues against a group of animal rights advocates who circulated video footage showing the extent of the cruel conditions of the Lakelands farm, and attempted to intervene during the RSPCA inspection.
The group – 12 adults and a 17-year-old girl – were charged with multiple offences, including trespass, malicious damage, and animal cruelty. Police alleged their efforts to remove hens from the farm had resulted in deaths of some of the birds.
Catherine Kelaher, founder of NSW Hen Rescue and one of the accused adults, denies the group caused any deaths and says they were trying to save the stricken birds. She said she was glad the RSPCA prosecuted Stone, and his conviction was «a small win» for the group.
«But the issue was they didn’t save any of the hens. That’s why we felt we needed to act back then,» she said.
«It is a small win, so that there is an acknowledgement that the hens suffered and what he did was cruel. That means something, it’s a small step in the right direction.»
Jenny Noyes is a journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. She was previously a writer and editor at Daily Life.