My primary area of research is the application of animal behaviour to the improvement of animal welfare. 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, I headed a research project designed to inform government policy on the practice of beak-trimming in laying hens. The 2015 report is available here:
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. I work with Dr Elizabeth Paul to examine how gold standard methods of assessing animal welfare (the animals’ own choices) map onto measures of emotion and mood, and how these can be used to validate practical indicators of welfare
Measuring hens’ preferences
Another of research interest is in understanding the learning and cognitive abilities of domestic animals – something that is essential to unde rpin valid welfare assessments. Highlights of this work show that chickens are able to navigate 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.
My book, The Behavioural Biology of Chickens, was published by CABI in 2015.
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 160 peer-reviewed publications, 15 book chapters and my own book on the Behavioural Biology of Chickens, published in 2015. 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
Edit this profile If you are Professor Christine Nicol, you can edit this page. Login required.