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 indicated they would join 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, in spite of our concerns about the impact on the hen welfare.
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.