Unsubsidised poultry producers in the UK could start receiving Government support for animal welfare measures.
Experts are currently establishing an animal health and welfare pathway for 6 sectors (laying hens, poultry meat, dairy, beef, sheep, and pigs), which will look at maintaining and enhancing current high standards and tapping into consumer willingness to pay for welfare measures and delivering public values. A grants scheme is set to be in place in 2023 with a payment by results scheme in operation the following year. Much discussion is currently concentrating on the involvement and role of veterinary surgeons.
Siobhan Mullan, Professor of Animal Welfare and Ethics at UCD Dublin Vet School, told the South West Chicken Association conference that specialists were currently looking at animal welfare benefits, economic costs, the feasibility of the scheme, public perception, and possible unintended consequences. Dr Mullan, who is project lead for the research team which also involves consultant ADAS, Royal Agricultural University and the University of Bristol, said discussions were continuing around whether to monitor inputs or outcomes and to whether to base the payment by results scheme on current farm assurance schemes, government inspectors (which would be hugely costly) or automated assessments at slaughter, which could not take into account behaviour.
Stakeholder engagement ahead of workshop surveys looked at welfare priorities for the sector and the value of possible enhancements, both in terms of welfare, feasibility, and societal importance. It found that the top priorities among the poultry meat sector were reducing stocking density, slower growing breeds, enriched environment enhancement and overcoming lameness and associated inactivity and skin lesions.
The future of bird welfare
According to a leading animal welfare behaviour specialist, greater use of on-farm hatcheries will reduce the stress of young chicks, which has an adverse effect on growth and mortality rates.
Ranking of potential enhancements included discussions around low levels of poor gait score, hock burn and pododermatitis, a minimum dark period of at least 6 hours, stocking density of a maximum of 30kg per square metre, low levels of mortality, and welfare planning with vets. Some issues such as use of raised platforms, improving natural cover on the range, providing a choice of forage and manipulation enrichments and no thinning scored highly. But stakeholders were concerned that measuring behaviour was not easy. Vets had an important role but should not be carrying out auditing and some enhancements have negative environmental impacts. Dr Mullan said stakeholders also said there were specific challenges around maintaining supply with slower growing breeds and the effect on the market and getting planning permission for birds housed at 30kg/square metre were not clear.
The research project is currently recruiting farmers and is particularly keen to talk to producers that have experience with slower growing breeds, access to ranges, and a variety of enrichments. While Covid-19 has made farm visits tricky, the online process will include a detailed survey, interview, and examine costs of production and welfare benefits. The final output will be an economic cost-benefit analysis and an understanding of farmer views of a payment by results scheme, which will go forward to inform Defra policy makers.