The aims of this study were twofold: to develop and test an animal-based protocol for the assessment of the physical and emotional elements of the welfare of laying hens on free-range units and to investigate the effects of different approaches to housing and management on the welfare of the birds. The protocol was tested on 25 free-range units for laying hens, each of which was visited on four occasions by one of five trained observers; further information about husbandry, health and productivity was gathered from interviews with the farmers. Measures of the birds' attitude included arousal, noise, flight distance and response to a novel object, measures of their activity included feather pecking, aggression and use of range, and measures of their physical welfare included mortality, body condition and egg quality. Increased arousal was associated with increased flight distance, greater reluctance to approach a novel object and higher levels of feather pecking and feather loss, but the correlation between pecking and feather loss was low. The birds maintained body condition throughout the period of lay. Neither body condition, feather pecking nor feather loss was affected by the extent of beak trimming. Estimated losses (deaths and culls) ranged from 1·8 to 21·4 per cent (median 6·95 per cent). Few birds showed signs of ill health, limb lesions or red mite infestation. No feature of building design had a significant effect on mortality, but there were consistent differences in the birds' attitude, behaviour and performance attributable to the type of floor and the presence or absence of perches, which suggested that the welfare of the hens was inferior when they were housed on plastic floors with no perches.