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New website will help farmers ensure hens maintain good feather cover

Press release issued: 1 July 2013

A new website, developed by scientists at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences, has been launched to help make sure laying hens are well-feathered throughout their lives.

The website [] has been developed by scientists at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences to improve bird welfare through FeatherWel, a project led by the University and supported by the Tubney Charitable Trust.

The Bristol team have collaborated on the FeatherWel website with RSPCA Freedom Food, The Soil Association and the AssureWel project.

The website, endorsed by the poultry industry, focuses on management strategies to help prevent pecking damage occurring from day old chicks through rear onto transfer to the laying house and throughout lay and provides photographic examples, links and further information. 

All forms of injurious pecking, including gentle and severe feather pecking, vent pecking and cannibalism are described.  In addition, there is a forum where farmers can share their experiences in managing flocks.

Dr Claire Weeks, Senior Research Fellow in Animal Welfare at the School of Veterinary Sciences, who led the project, said: “When it comes to abnormal pecking behaviour, most farmers are well aware that prevention is easier than cure. A trial of the advice in the management package on 100 farms as part of the Bristol Pecking Project found that using as many management strategies together as possible was the most effective way of achieving a fully-feathered flock.”

Hens mainly lose feathers through other birds pecking at them: an abnormal redirected foraging behaviour. The most common reasons for this are poor litter quality and limited foraging opportunities. Aimed principally at free-range systems, the website also emphasises the importance of providing good access to a quality pasture with cover to maximise the opportunities for hens to forage while feeling secure.

Mark Williams, spokesman for the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC), said: “BEIC is fully supportive of this guide which will help in assisting producers to implement measures that can help prevent injurious feather pecking, provided it forms part of the overall professional advice available to producers.”

Alice Clark of the RSPCA added: “Injurious pecking is a serious laying hen welfare issue, which can lead to significant injuries and even cannibalism.

“We believe the FeatherWel website is a valuable new resource which can help reduce and prevent these problems by bringing together practical advice from scientists, the industry and welfare organisations, as well as a forum for producers to share experiences.”

The website can be used as a resource for producers, advisors, and veterinary surgeons seeking advice on how to reduce the risk of injurious pecking occurring in non-cage flocks of hens.  A 24-page booklet*, which expands on the four-page leaflet launched last year, is also available to download from the website.

The availability of this information is timely as the industry faces a possible ban on beak-trimming, which is a widespread practice used to limit the damage that can occur with outbreaks of injurious pecking behaviour.

The Bristol team is currently trialling the advice in the management package on 20 commercial flocks where the birds have intact beaks (i.e. are not beak-trimmed) to provide information for the government’s review in 2015 ahead of the proposed ban from 2016.

* Improving Feather Cover - a guide to reducing the risk of injurious pecking occurring in non-cage laying hens, University of Bristol 2013.


Further information

About the School of Veterinary Sciences

Research at the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Sciences is focused on the areas of Animal Welfare & Behaviour, Comparative & Clinical Research, and Infection & Immunity, complemented by quantitative expertise in Biostatistics, Epidemiology and Mathematical Ecology. Research ranges from fundamental to applied and is relevant to over-arching issues such as Food Security and Animal Health.

* AssureWel

AssureWel is a five-year (2010-2015) project led by the RSPCA, the Soil Association and the University of Bristol, funded by the Tubney Charitable Trust. The aim of the project is to improve the welfare of laying hens, dairy cattle, pigs, broilers, beef cattle and sheep though a practical system for assessing their well-being. AssureWel’s ‘welfare outcome assessments’ are scientifically validated measures of welfare achieved by looking directly at the animals, rather than their environment or management.

About the RSPCA and RSPCA Freedom Food

The RSPCA was founded in the early 19th century to improve farm animal welfare at markets, during transport and slaughter and that work continues today. Freedom Food is the RSPCA's farm assurance and food labelling scheme. It is the only UK farm assurance scheme to focus solely on improving the welfare of farm animals reared for food.

About the Soil Association

The Soil Association was founded in 1946 by farmers, scientists, doctors and nutritionists to promote the connection between the health of the soil, food, animals, people and the environment. Today the Soil Association is the UK's leading membership charity campaigning for healthy, humane and sustainable food, farming and land use.

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