Meet Lucy Gavaghan, the award-winning animal activist on a solo mission to end caged hen farming in the UK.
Already this year, she’s successfully lobbied the big supermarkets to end the sale of caged eggs by 2025, and now the 14-year-old has her sights set firmly on Westminster.
In August, she launched her third successive petition, calling for Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom to ban caged egg farming in the UK for good – a goal Gavaghan thinks is closer to reach than ever before.
Based in Sheffield, where she lives with her family, Gavaghan herself owns six hens –Mildred, Hazel, Sylvia, Fern, Sunshine and Pumpkin – plus a springer spaniel, two rabbits, a hamster, a fish and a Shetland pony.
Her route into animal activism began with a real-life encounter of the feathered kind. “After meeting a small flock of hens on the livery yard where my sister kept her pony, I became interested by the inquisitive and clearly complex creatures they are,” she recalls. “I began to investigate how hens are treated in the commercial world, and was immediately struck by the cramped conditions and the contrast between the hens I saw ranging freely.”
Battery cages were banned in the UK in 2012, but they were replaced by “enriched cages”, a slightly tweaked set-up that Lucy says is “barely distinguishable” from battery cages: hens spend 72 weeks in a space barely bigger than a sheet of A4 paper.
The reality is that Britain still lags behind countries like Austria, where enriched cages will be banned by 2020, and controversial beak trimming practices have been eradicated.
Activism is in Gavaghan’s blood. Her great-great-grandmother was a campaigner for Votes for Women, and her grandmother was a member of the CND. Perhaps this heritage contributed to her determination to change the practices of supermarket giants – a daunting task.
“I started writing letters to supermarkets asking them to stop selling caged hens eggs,” she says. “But the responses I received suggested no movement could be expected.”
Undeterred, Gavaghan took to Change.org to launch her first petition, directly lobbying Tesco. It swiftly received the requisite number of signatures, exceeding all of her expectations. After she had a meeting with Tesco’s head of agriculture, the company called her school a few weeks later to announce that it would be phasing out caged eggs.
“This was an amazing moment that I never expected to reach so quickly,” she tells me. “The timescale for the transition is longer than many people – including myself – had hoped for. But the change must happen as efficiently and widely as possible, which will take time.”
Her second petition was successful in getting Asda and Morrisons to commit to the same pledge.
Emotive and eloquent, Gavaghan has her campaign language down pat. While she modestly puts her campaign’s success down to a public that intrinsically understands caged farming is wrong, her digital nous is the real linchpin.
“People talk about the dangers of ‘clicktivism’ or say ‘people will just sign anything’. I personally couldn’t disagree more,” she says. “It takes a convincing petition and engaging cause to reach many people – it’s easy to sign a petition, but it’s not always easy to make someone want to. The internet and social media have given the public the power to create huge change.”
Gavaghan believes taking on the government is a bigger challenge than targeting supermarkets, and says her priority is ensuring that the changes made in this policy area are real.
“With every major change that’s made, there are risks that other areas of the industry may be compromised by a shift in egg production – if measures are not taken to ensure free-range farming is regulated at an even higher level,” she warns. “I want to increase the welfare of hens, not replace current systems with identical ones with the ambition of deceiving the general public.”
The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) says humane farming is high on its agenda. A spokesperson says: “The government shares the public’s high regard for animal welfare and we have some of the highest standards in the world. Every livestock farm, regardless of scale, must comply with strict legislation, including comprehensive environmental and animal welfare rules.”
While her third petition gathers pace, Gavaghan is trying to raise general awareness for the issue – there’s even a hashtag for it, #nomorecages. She has also picked up an Animal Hero Award for Young Animal Enthusiast of the Year.
But while she’s not campaigning, or at school – where she says her teachers and fellow pupils have been “really supportive” of the petitions – she likes to spend time outdoors and with her animals.
As for the future? “I’ve always wanted to work with animals, but since starting my campaign, I’m now fairly certain that I’d like to work in the animal welfare industry,” she says. “Beyond that, I’m not entirely sure, but I will definitely always be involved in campaigning to change the face of industrial farming.”
Natalie Hardwick is Features Editor of BBCgoodfood.com, and writes about food and drink for multiple publications.