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Feather pecking: solutions through understanding


Egg production represents an important sector of the farming industry. Approximately 250 million laying hens are kept in the EU. Because of public concern over poultry welfare, the demand for non-cage eggs and, consequently, the development of alternative housing systems have increased, particularly in Northern Europe.

However, the introduction of alternative housing systems produce an increased risk of feather pecking (FP). FP is widely considered to be one of the major welfare problems facing laying hens, particularly if they are housed in alternative systems rather than battery cages. FP has many deleterious effects. FP consists of pecking and pulling at the feathers of other birds and thereby it can cause damage to the plumage and loss of feathers. This can impose a financial burden because birds with few feathers lose heat faster, have greater energetic needs and thereby cost more to feed. Not only may birds be h1jured when they are severely pecked (which in itself is painful) but the associated feather loss increases susceptibility to further injury, particularly if panic reactions lead to trampling and clawing. Finally, FP may lead to cannibalism, birds may be literally pecked to death if this catastrophic phenomenon develops.

Remedial measures currently practised by the poultry industry have associated welfare problems. For example, beak trimming, which involves partial amputation of the beak, is a widely practised and effective control measure. However, it causes pain both during and after the operation. FP is also reduced by keeping birds under dim light but this practice impoverishes the visual environment and it can cause eye abnormalities, such as dimlight buphthalmos.

There is a strong pressure in the EU to ban battery cages and develop viable alternative housillg systems. However, the increased risk of FP is a major obstacle to the widespread adoption of alten1ative housing, such as free range, aviaries, percheries etc.. Therefore, it is imperative that we improve our understanding of this behavioural problem and thereby maximise our attempts to solve it.

Our project addresses EU research priorities related to animal welfare which were identified in the Framework Programme. It is also directly relevant to recent communications from the EU Scientific Veterinary Committee, Animal Welfare Section, where it was concluded that "other problems, especially the major problem of FP, need further research" (EU-SVC, 1996).

The main objective of this project is to improve the welfare of laying hens by increasing our understandh1g of the internal (originating within the bird) and external (originating from its environment) variables underpinning the development and reduction of FP.

Emphasis will be placed on identifying:
i) individual behavioural and physiological characteristics associated with high FP,
ii) inanimate stimuli (and their component features that elicit sustained pecking),
iii) attractive properties of pecked birds, and detemining if FP spreads within a flock, and finally,
iv) evaluating methods that could be used to minimise FP in industry and formulating recommendations.

By integrating the efforts of three European research groups and two European industrial partners, this timely project offers a unique, multi-disciplinary and complementary blend of resources and expertise. Our ultimate goal is to develop innovative strategies (e.g. devices to divert pecking away from flockmates, potential genetic selection criteria) which can replace beak trimming as a way of preventing FP (and the potential development of cannibalism) and to thereby enhance poultry welfare. Direct industry participation from different countries guarantees effective application of the results. This will improve public perception of the European poultry industry and hlcrease its competitiveness.

Funding Scheme

CSC - Cost-sharing contracts


Edelhertweg 15
8200 Lelystad

Participants (4)

Veerstraat 38
5831 Boxmeer
Am Seedeich 9
27454 Cuxhaven
United Kingdom

EH25 9PS Roslin

53223 Skara