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Hen pecking - a serious animal welfare concern

Press release issued: 23 June 2008

Laying hens often severely peck other hens' feathers, skin, or vents. This not only causes pain but can also lead to cannibalism and death. Harmful pecking is a serious animal welfare concern and can cause great economic losses for the farmer and the egg-production industry as a whole.

Laying hens often severely peck other hens' feathers, skin, or vents.  This not only causes pain but can also lead to cannibalism and death.  Harmful pecking is a serious animal welfare concern and can cause great economic losses for the farmer and the egg-production industry as a whole.

Researchers Dr Chris Sherwin, Professor Christine Nicol and Dr David Main, at the University of Bristol's Animal Behaviour and Welfare Group have been awarded over £850,000 for three years by the Tubney Charitable Trust to reduce harmful pecking by using existing knowledge to improve the welfare of free-range laying hens.

There is already considerable scientific and industry-based information on harmful pecking, but it has never been pulled together as a single resource for the egg-production industry. 

Using scientific information, expert opinion, detailed advice from the industry, and taking financial implications into consideration, the researchers hope to develop a practical, cost-effective husbandry advisory pack with the aim of preventing harmful pecking amongst free-range laying hens. 

The advisory pack will make the information accessible to egg farmers and their advisors, and will identify the most appropriate husbandry solution for each individual farm.  The researchers will develop the pack to enable individual farms to recognise and reduce risk factors of harmful pecking, recognise and distinguish between different forms of harmful pecking, and promote the farmer's ability to reduce pecking by following recommendations.

The intervention strategies contained in the pack will be evaluated on numerous recruited farms, and feedback from farmers and field-assistants will be used to develop the usefulness of the pack over a three-year period. Flagship farms around the country will be signed-up as demonstration units allowing visits by other farmers, retailers, scientists and policy makers to observe the advisory pack 'in action'.

Dr Chris Sherwin, Senior Research Fellow in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, Farm Animal Science at Bristol University, said: "Harmful pecking causes stress, injuries, increased vulnerability to disease, and when feathers are removed by pecking, the pecked hens compensate for the reduced insulation by eating more food. When harmful pecking causes death, this obviously leads to an immediate end of egg production.  Harmful pecking is therefore both a serious animal welfare concern and an issue of great economic significance. "

Work on the advisory packs will proceed in three phases.  Initially, the researchers will conduct a review of current literature and other information, to translate this into a workable advisory pack.

The researchers will then implement the package on a range of farms, monitor its effectiveness, and feedback into the package information collected during numerous farm visits and farmer reports.  A third phase, which is not funded, will be an industry-wide rollout of the advisory pack with the most effective strategies promoted to the industry.

There are 30 million layer hens in the UK flock and an extensive survey conducted previously by the Behaviour and Welfare Research Group has revealed that 55 per cent of flocks are affected by harmful pecking.  This indicates that each year, several million hens are suffering from this welfare problem.  The motivation to reduce harmful pecking and improve the welfare of laying hens is very great, originating from consumers, farmers, retailers, welfare organisations, assurance schemes, scientists and legislators alike. Although there might be different reasons underlying this motivation, ultimately, all these stakeholders wish to see a decrease in harmful pecking.


Further information

The Tubney Charitable Trust is a grant making charity seeking to support activities that have a long term, sustainable, positive impact on the biodiversity of the UK and on the welfare of farmed animals both in the UK and internationally.

The University of Bristol's Animal Behaviour and Welfare Group, based within the Department of Clinical Veterinary Science, is a centre of excellence in animal welfare science, influencing national and international agendas, innovating in all aspects from fundamental to applied research, and working with farm, companion, laboratory, zoo and working animals.

The group provides top quality, research-informed teaching, including a BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, and plays a critical role in developing the careers of scientists interested in animal welfare.

The group aims to maintain and grow its current position as a world leader in animal welfare research, by focusing on the following priorities :
· To carry out high quality fundamental research into animal motivation, cognition and emotion, including the development of novel approaches, to underpin new and better methods for animal welfare assessment.
· To increase understanding of human factors influencing animal welfare and behaviour.
· To define husbandry risk factors and develop practical solutions for existing and emerging welfare problems.
· To develop and evaluate implementation strategies which promote human actions that improve the welfare of animals, at all levels from individuals to populations.

Please contact Joanne Fryer for further information.
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