My primary area of research is the application of animal behaviour to the improvement of animal welfare and am pleased that my scientific work on laying hens formed an important part of the evidence that was used by EU veterinary and scientific committees to bring about the 2012 EU ban on conventional ‘battery’ cages for laying hens and to develop viable and humane alternative housing systems which have been embraced by British industry. Recently, the UK government has announced its intention to ban the practice of beak-trimming and I am currently heading a grant that will provide evidence about the welfare implications of keeping intact-beak hens for a review of this policy in 2015.
I am also interested in applying quantitative epidemiological approaches to welfare problems, through a range of international collaborations. This work has elucidated the causes and risk factors for debilitating welfare problems that occur on commercial farms, including feather pecking and cannibalism in hens, tail-biting and vulva-biting in sows, obesity in horses, skeletal conditions and fractures in laying birds and leg health problems in broiler chickens.
Obesity in horses
One management practice that reduces the risk of feather pecking is rearing chicks with “dark brooders” that simulate some aspects of the broody hen within a commercial environment. With this system active chicks cannot easily direct their pecks towards the feathers of sleeping companions, since tired chicks choose to rest and sleep in the dark.
An experimental dark brooder trial
Having amassed much evidence about the management practices that can be adopted to improve farm animal welfare, I am now working with colleagues on ways of translating and disseminating the work to farmers, for example via the FeatherWel website.
Alongside applied work, I retain a fundamental interest in developing new methods of assessing welfare and applying these to highlight problem areas and to produce solutions. This strand of work formed the basis of my contribution to a BBSRC programme grant on Advancing Animal Welfare Science. I examined how the gold standard method of assessing animal welfare (the animals’ own choices) could be used to validate practical indicators of welfare
Measuring hens’ preferences
This work will be continuing from 2014 to 2017 with a new BBSRC grant to further validate and differentiate welfare indicators for hens, including indicators of long-term welfare. I am also interested in assessing the pain associated with common diseases and pathologies in farm animals and in using behaviour as an early predictor of later disease onset.
Another of my research interests is in understanding the learning and cognitive abilities of domestic animals – something that is essential to underpin valid welfare assessments. Highlights of this work show that chickens are able to naviga te using a ‘sun compass’, that they are able to exert ‘self-control’ by foregoing a small immediate reward to obtain a delayed larger reward, that they are sensitive to perceived feeding ‘errors’ by their chicks (indicating some compound appreciation of how self-knowledge can be used to correct the behaviour of a naive conspecific) and that they have a rudimentary ‘object permanence’ concept (appreciating that an object still exists once it has vanished from direct view). Most recently I have been working with Liz Paul and Joanne Edgar on the foundations of avian empathy – by examining the extent to which hens react to mild distress in their chicks or in other adult birds – using a range of sensitive non-invasive methods to measure hen physiology alongside their behaviour. We can even train chickens to wear lightweight external heart-rate monitors for short periods of time.
I am currently writing a book summarising much of my work on chicken cognition which will be published by CABI in 2014.
Further information about Dr Christine Nicol can be found here.
I obtained a degree in Zoology from Oxford University in 1981, worked with horses for a year, then returned to Oxford to do a DPhil on the welfare of caged hens with Professor Marian Dawkins. I joined Bristol University in 1986 as a Lecturer in Farm Animal Welfare, where I worked hard to promote and develop animal welfare as an inter-disciplinary theme. Until 2006 I acted as Head of the Animal Welfare and Behaviour group, and until 2008 as initiator and programme director of the BSc in Animal Behaviour and Welfare. I have held short-term research fellowships in Canada, Australia and New Zealand and am a section editor for the journal Animal Welfare. Recent external appointments as a member of the BBSRC Bioscience for Society Strategy Panel, Sir Patrick Bateson’s independent inquiry into the welfare of pedigree dogs, the NC3Rs studentship panel, the USA co-ordinated agriculture project for the welfare of egg laying hens, and as Honorary Scientist, South Korea rural development administration. I have published 120 peer-reviewed publications, 15 book chapters and co-edited the recent CABI, Encyclopedia of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. I am currently concentrating on fundamental research into the best methods of assessing animal welfare.
View complete publications list in the University of Bristol publications system
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