Chief Executive's Comment - October 2017
I announced at the Conference that BFREPA is supporting a grant application which, if successful, will evaluate at the welfare impact of the RSPCA’s new perching requirements in flat decks.
The research application was written by Professor Tarlton of the University of Bristol’s School of Veterinary Science and was submitted to British Biotechnology and Science Research Council on the day before the Conference. Professor Tarlton reported to both myself and the Ranger magazine that the RSPCA had decided against supporting the application at the eleventh hour. Failure to support this study can be added to the list of letdowns that the RSPCA has delivered to free range egg producers over the last 12-18 months. During the lengthy debates that we had with the RSPCA Farm Animals team at Horsham and elsewhere over their proposed standard revisions, they committed to joining us in researching the impact of increasing levels of perching on keel bone injuries in flat decks. It was our position that the RSPCA’s standards on perching should not change until the research had been carried out. They went ahead and revised their standards regardless, recklessly ignoring the impact on the hen welfare.
Notwithstanding my frustration at the publication of the new standards, I was pleasantly surprised when University of Bristol told me the RSPCA had agreed to support our research project entitled: “The welfare impact of fitting aerial perches in laying hen free-range systems to comply with RSPCA Assured requirements”. I understood that the RSPCA were not overjoyed at a ‘before and after’ study, that is to say researchers would look at hen welfare before the RSPCA’s perching requirements were added and compare the hen welfare criteria afterwards. But nonetheless they supported the research application for the month that it took to write the proposal before they got cold feet and pulled out at the last minute.
Producers must now surmise why they withdrew their names as a partner in the project. The official line is that there is a conflict of interest as it is their standards that are being questioned by the research,
In previous studies, Professor Tarlton has shown that keel bone fracture incidence in free-range laying hens at end of lay can range from 45% to 90% depending on individual system design; those with no aerial perches (average rate 60%), with A-frame aerial perches (average rate 75%) or suspended aerial perches (average rate 85%). With over 20 million free-range laying hens in the UK, the introduction of aerial perches could mean an additional 5 million hens suffering keel bone fractures.
However, we must accept that keel fractures are not the only welfare issue. In defense of the proposed changes to the standard, the RSPCA say that their standards take account of the keel bone problem and that other welfare measures, such as feather pecking and hen fearfulness, may be improved with the provision of aerial perches.
Certainly we all accept that hens will choose to use raised perches if they are provided and that many countries require aerial perching in their housing systems.But the worrying evidence of keel bone damage is new and there is insufficient evidence to establish the overall welfare benefits or detriments of the new aerial perching requirement.
The proposed research will also look at multi-tier rearing to see if that will help reduce injuries with aerial perching. A hen’s capacity to adapt to furniture in a shed is improved if she is also reared in a multi-tiered rather than a single tier rearing system. It is possible that some of the negative consequences of fitting of aerial perches, in particular keel bone fractures, are mitigated when populated with hens reared in a complex 3-Dimensional environment. The study may find that multi-tier rearing reduces keel bone damage in hens using aerial perching such that the RSPCA’s perching requirements are benign on the hens’ welfare.
The research, if the funding application is successful, would start next year and would compare individual systems without and with perches in consecutive laying cycles. BFREPA has offered 16 farms (8 from single tier and 8 from multi-tier rearing systems) currently with no aerial perches, but due to be fitted in the following laying cycle. Each farm would be visited at 32 and 52 weeks, and bone samples collected at end of lay. Researchers from Bristol would assess keel fractures, feather pecking behaviour, plumage scores, fearfulness and skeletal resilience over consecutive laying cycles. They would also examine egg production and mortality.
In 2010 the Government’s official welfare advisor, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), recommended “that the egg industry (including retailers) should aim to eliminate bone fractures in live birds altogether. To that end, it should develop a strategy of time-related reduction with interim targets for the prevalence of fractures both during lay and at depopulation.” It also recommended that “The industry should carry out surveillance in collaboration with Governments in Great Britain to establish trends in the prevalence of bone fractures in laying hens [and] identify the efficacy of various preventative measures. Design and management of systems to reduce and if possible prevent bone fractures should be given high priority.”
BFREPA is doing its bit to reduce bone fractures.