Keeping layers in cages and broilers in densely populated houses has become a common practice. Meanwhile, however, concern over bird welfare has also increased, based on scientific knowledge and public perception. Europe, in particular, has taken the lead to improve poultry welfare. This is likely to increase in the next 25 years.
By Arnold Elson, Chairperson WPSA, working group 9 on Poultry Welfare and Management and International Consultant, UK
This article is forward looking, but we must first briefly trace the progress of poultry welfare over the past 50 years or so. Concern over the welfare of farm animals, especially poultry, developed in the late 1960s following the publication of Ruth Harrison’s book “Animal Machines” in 1964, closely followed by the Brambell Report on the Welfare of Animals kept under Intensive Livestock Husbandry Systems, which was prepared for the UK government in 1965.
During the ensuing years various animal welfare organisations emerged, research groups were set up and legislation was passed to further protect the well-being of farm animals. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) was established by the UK government in 1979 to advise Ministers on any legislative or other changes required as they became necessary. FAWC formulated, and is guided by, the ideals that became known as the “Five Freedoms”, which incorporate freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express normal behaviour, and freedom from fear and distress.
Progress in the past
Organisations in Europe and beyond also studied and developed animal welfare ideals. There have been several milestones. In 1988, the EU ratified the Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes, one of five Council of Europe conventions covering animal welfare. In 1997, the Treaty of Amsterdam recognised that “animals are sentient beings” and required “full regard to be paid to their welfare when policies … are formulated”. In 2004, the first global conference on animal welfare was held in Paris by the World Heath Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). In 2006, the Animal Welfare in Europe Workshop was convened to consider achievements and future prospects. A main objective was ‘to bridge the gap between animal welfare legislation and practical application’.
Poultry were an important part of these processes, with laying hens kept in cages as the main target. Broiler welfare was also a concern, in particular skeletal deformities in fast growing genotypes. In 1972, the European Federation of the WPSA decided to establish a specialist working group on poultry welfare. WPSA Working Group 9, of which the author was a founder member, was therefore formed in 1973 and held its inaugural meeting the same year in Germany. It rapidly became recognised as an important influence in poultry welfare research and the implementation of research findings in the design and development of poultry husbandry systems with improved welfare.
European Union Council Directives were adopted to protect the welfare of laying hens in battery cages (1988/166/ EEC), of laying hens in all production systems (1999/74/EC), and more recently of chickens kept for meat production (2007/43/EC). These have influenced system design and husbandry practices to improve bird welfare, and will continue to do so for some years to come; for example 99/74/EC prohibits laying hens being kept in barren conventional (un-enriched) cages in all Member States with effect from 01/01/2012.
Much effort has been expended in this field in recent years and considerable progress has been made. Poultry welfare is now better understood, and a variety of problems have been at least partially solved. However, although several welfare indicators have been recognised, poultry welfare is still not easy to measure. It is also important to distinguish between scientific measures and consumer perceptions. The term ‘welfare-friendly system’ is now widely used to describe certain systems, such as free-range egg production.
Consequently, an increasing number of consumers pay a premium for ‘free-range’ eggs as time goes by (Figure 1) without realising that: most of the eggs in the ‘free-range’ pack they buy have been laid by hens that have never been outside (though they are free to do so), greater rates of bone breakage in free-range systems represent a serious welfare issue and may compromise the welfare benefits of free-range systems, and although free-range hens have more freedom and a wider behavioural repertoire than those in most other systems, they are subject to the risk of greater welfare hazards.
A 4-year Bristol University research study completed this year has revealed that, considering the indicators of physical wellbeing and stress response that were measured, the welfare of laying hens in the furnished (enriched) cage system appeared to be better than that of hens in other systems.
At present, public perceptions of laying hen welfare, and therefore choice of production system, vary considerably between countries across Europe, ranging from almost 100% cages in Spain and the Czech Republic to under 30% in Austria, with others in between. It is still true that welfare needs to be improved in all husbandry systems! Some problems are difficult to solve and remain, despite much research effort. An example of this is a common form of feather pecking that can lead to injurious flesh pecking and death by cannibalism. A related unsolved welfare concern is that of mutilation i.e. the intervention of beak treatment (partial amputation) in order to minimise the problem of cannibalism. At present, beak trimming is required more in loose housing systems (especially those with natural daylight) than in cages installed in houses with good control of light intensity.
Much remains to be done, but the framework is in place for progress to be made. Superior welfare can be predicted for all poultry species in the years ahead, but the speed with which progress towards the ideals will be made is less certain. Some obvious obstacles may not be easily overcome. The serious problem of cannibalism may be gradually reduced by breeding programmes, system design and husbandry intervention, but the underlying problem may prove to be insuperable. It has been suggested, for instance, that it may only be possible to eliminate cannibalism by genetic modification (GM) of the breeding stock. This, however, may not be acceptable. Meanwhile, improved, more accurate beak treatments, such as using infrared or laser beams, may help to alleviate the lasting pain and stress caused by traditional hot blade beak cutting.
Other examples of serious physical welfare threats that may be difficult to eliminate are contact dermatitis in all poultry species loose-housed on litter, leg weakness disorders in fast growing broilers, and red mite in all systems. Regarding skeletal damage in laying hens, Bristol University researchers recently announced a new 3-year project 'Production of "welfare friendly" eggs - improving bone health and reducing bone breakage in laying hens using an omega-3 modified diet'. In the longer term, the findings of this study might alleviate one of the serious welfare problems of free-range laying hens mentioned above. Mental stress, and distress due to birds’ positions within certain social hierarchies being formed, can also be a problem, probably more in some systems than others. Some promising research work is emerging in these fields but future success to eliminate these welfare problems is not yet totally assured. One important approach to achieve progress in such areas will be networking and collaboration between workers and institutes to bridge the gaps between basic and applied research and development. Another approach, currently showing promise, is to tackle practical welfare problems using large scale epidemiological studies involving many poultry farms.
Role of WPSA Working Group 9
Accurate forward prediction of poultry welfare achievement is difficult beyond a few years – 2034 seems a long way off! However, as chairperson of WG9, the author feels confident that this group will continue to play an important role in the enhancement of poultry welfare in the years ahead. WG9 currently has 36 members in 22 European countries. As well as having expertise in 41 listed areas and disciplines involved in poultry welfare and management, members of this group regularly collaborate in EU-wide poultry welfare projects: recent and current examples are LayWel, the EFSA opinion on the welfare of laying hens and & Welfare Quality.
Additionally, WG9 currently has two sub-groups working on the improvement of furnished laying cages, and on the reduction of contact dermatitis in broilers. It continues to encourage researchers to examine and study further possible avenues of poultry welfare improvement.
Another important aspect of the role of WG9 is to organise quadrennial poultry welfare symposia in various venues throughout Europe. These are well attended and provide the most prominent forum at which to report and discuss recent poultry welfare research and development. The 8th symposium was held this year in Italy. Future planned symposia include the 9th in Sweden in 2013 and the 10th in France in 2017. These, together with welfare sessions at other poultry events, such as the WPSA European Poultry Conference in 2010, and other methods of dissemination, should ensure that poultry welfare research contributes positively to improve the wellbeing of poultry throughout Europe and beyond for many years to come.