Assurewel, a five-year scheme led by the RSPCA, the Soil Association and the University of Bristol, has released a guide to help reduce injurious pecking in free-range, barn and organic laying hens.
Beak trimming is seen by many as the most effective way to reduce injury and feather loss caused by pecking or cannibalism. But a ban on the practice, due to come into effect in 2016, means that new methods of prevention need to be established.
The four-page booklet identifies the causes of feather loss and suggests prevention and management techniques to get on top of the problem.
It lists two distinct causes of feather pecking:
• Injurious feather pecking – which is the pulling out of feathers, vent pecking and cannibalism. Described as “abnormal behaviour”, this is believed to be caused by redirected foraging behaviour and poor litter quality. It is also a sign that a flock is diseased or stressed.
• Aggression – described as “natural behaviour” but problematic at high levels. It can increase the risk of injurious pecking.
The region of the feather loss can identify the type of pecking taking place: around the back and rump indicates injurious pecking, whereas loss around the head and neck indicate normal aggression, according to the guidelines.
The guide says protecting feather cover should begin with choosing pullets, suggesting some breeds are more prone to injurious pecking. Robust birds should be chosen, it says, that are of uniform size, at target bodyweight and healthy.
Minimising stress during transportation, avoiding mixing established groups together and allowing access to litter as soon as possible will all help. The guide also says giving birds more space to forage, providing range enrichment and increasing the distance between feed and water stations will all help to reduce aggression and feather loss.
The booklet can be downloaded here