17 July 2018 | Online since 2003

5 March 2018

Government draft code of practice raises beak tipping ban concerns

The threat of a ban on beak tipping has raised its head again in a new draft code of practice published by the Government.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has produced a new Code of Practice for the Welfare of Laying Hens. As the Ranger went to press, the department was consulting with egg industry leaders on its contents, but one issue that appears in the document is the renewed possibility of a beak trimming ban.

A previous threat to ban the practice was abandoned at the end of 2015, when Farming Minister George Eustice was advised that the risks of introducing a ban on beak trimming were too great. He was told that such a ban could result in outbreaks of severe feather pecking. At the time of his announcement, the Minister said that a report by the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG) had identified a number of improved management techniques that could reduce feather pecking and the Government expected to see these techniques introduced across the layer sector.

But the possibility of stopping beak trimming has now raised its head again in the draft Defra code. The code reads, "Once all management strategies are in place and good feather cover is achieved throughout lay for two consecutive flocks, stopping beak trimming in future flocks should be considered, in consultation with a veterinary surgeon and other specialist industry advisors."

Robert Gooch, chief executive of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association (BFREPA), said he was not surprised to see mention of beak trimming in the document but he said he was concerned at the suggestion that the practice would be banned automatically after two flocks.

"The Laying Hen Welfare Forum is working to try to reduce feather pecking. The whole reason for this is the Government hopes to reach a point where we don't need to trim beaks, even though we have concerns about that," he said. "The Government wants to reduce injurious pecking until beak trimming can be banned. That is Government policy, so I am not surprised that it is in the document.

"What is more concerning is that it specifically says after two flocks we should consider not beak trimming. It has always been when feather pecking is under control. Specifically saying two flocks is interesting and worrying and is something we will be pushing back against," said Robert.

BFREPA is one of the organisations that are being consulted about the draft document. Steve Carlyle of Country Fresh Pullets, another members of the BFREPA council, is also involved in discussions about its contents. He said the proposal on beak trimming could be disastrous for the industry at this time.

"I have strong concerns, given the previous work done on this by BTAG. We are making advances in feather cover and we are particularly excited about the addition of lucerne, both in rear and in lay. But this is a step too soon, particularly saying that after two flocks then we would automatically stop beak trimming."

A ban on the use of beak trimming was originally due to be introduced in 2011 but was deferred on the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC), which was concerned about the implications for injurious pecking if the practice was outlawed. When it deferred the ban, the Government said it would review the decision in 2015 with a view to a ban being introduced in 2016.

BTAG, which comprised representatives from animal welfare groups as well as poultry industry leaders, vets, scientists, retailers and Defra officials, was established to look at all available evidence. Trials were commissioned to find ways to manage commercial layers without the use of beak trimming, but severe outbreaks of injurious pecking in some trial flocks raised concerns. A 16,000-bird free range trial flock in East Anglia had to undergo emergency beak trimming after injurious pecking resulted in a mortality rate of 20 per cent. On another free range trial unit in Yorkshire the mortality rate hit 15 per cent amongst birds whose beaks were left intact.

In the end, BTAG advised the Government not to go ahead with a ban.

The new draft code produced by the Government contains a whole section on injurious pecking, aggressive pecking and feather loss. It says, "Every effort should be made to reduce injurious pecking so as to avoid the need to beak trim."

The documents says that poultry keepers could consider selecting for strains with a reduced tendency to injurious pecking and it says that farmers should develop a bespoke action plan to reduce injurious pecking and thus the need to beak trim. "This should be drawn up in consultation with a veterinary surgeon. It should detail specific management procedures and interventions from early rearing through to laying, to reduce the risk of injurious pecking occurring and the steps to be taken in the event of an outbreak," says the draft code. "Feather scores should be recorded throughout flock life and outbreaks of injurious pecking recorded and investigated as to possible causes. Progress should be assessed on a flock by flock basis as part of the review of the plan, with the aim of continuous improvement."

Since FAWC produced its recommendation that a ban should not go ahead in 2011, routine beak trimming has been restricted to use of the infra-red method rather than hot blading. The British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) introduced management strategies to reduce feather pecking into its Lion Code of Practice and it committed to ensuring that the latest recommendations from veterinary and animal welfare experts could be introduced into the code.


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