1 August 1997

Aggression prompts free-range research

GOVERNMENT is spending £500,000 on research into aggression, feather picking, and cannibalism in free range and barn-housed hens.

The four-year programme at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh follows MAFF concern about an increasing antisocial behaviour in systems commonly believed to be more welfare friendly.

"The problem is also being found in battery hens but, from a public perception point of view, there is even more concern about the incidence in so-called welfare friendly systems," said Brian Jones, one of those leading the research at Roslin.

"The ministry is worried and commissioned the investigation earlier this year. We are taking a two-pronged approach. The first is to study a wide range of different strains to see if there is a genetic link to aggression. It may be possible to breed birds which are not predisposed to feather picking.

"The other line of research will study environmental features like noise and also a range of devices to find if there is something which will consistently attract the birds and divert them from aggression against each other," said Dr Jones.

"The work is in its early stages, but we have already discovered that hens will peck at a bunch of string in preference to a bunch of feathers, which is reassuring. We may be able to alter the modern environment in both extensive and intensive systems to counter the aggression which leads to feather picking and cannibalism.

"As well as welfare perceptions there are huge economic implications because if cannibalism starts in a free-range or barn-housed flock, the losses can be colossal," said Dr Jones. &#42