High levels of red mite infestation can act as a trigger to outbreaks of aggressive feather pecking, a situation that could be greatly exacerbated if the government presses ahead with its planned ban on beak trimming in 2016.
Addressing an international workshop on red mite, organised by the British Egg Marketing Board Trust, free-range egg producer and chairman of the British Egg Association, Jeff Vergerson, described the probable consequences of the two things working in tandem.
“Birds can get very irritable if infested with red mite. It can act as a trigger to aggressive pecking. If the birds have beaks like a vulture, then they have the tools to do a lot of damage.”
Mr Vergerson said that, in nine flocks out of 10, there might not be a problem, but if the tenth flock had a problem, the consequences would be devastating. “There is no worse sight than that of a chicken with its entrails hanging out being pecked to death by another chicken.”
If emergency beak trimming were required, this would involve “hot blading” birds in full lay. And since the practice was routinely banned in the UK, there was a dwindling pool of people who would be qualified to do it.
Mr Vergerson’s comments echoed views expressed by British Egg Industry Council chairman Andrew Joret at the recent Egg and Poultry Industry Conference, who said the industry needed another 10 years before it would be safe to move away from infrared beak trimming of day-old chicks.
“All the evidence, in my mind, has always said that we’re not ready for this. It’s not that non beak-trimming will always be a problem. But on those occasions when you don’t get away with it, it can be an absolute and utter disaster.
“If that’s in the press, then heaven knows what people will think of us. If people say that’s good for animal welfare, then they are mad, utterly crazy.”
Meanwhile, industry experts on the Beak Trimming Action Group have met in London (13 November), behind closed doors, to discuss latest developments in the ongoing beak trimming trials being run by Bristol University (free range) and Scotland’s Rural College (colony).
The meeting included a discussion on the recent outbreak of cannibalism in one of the larger free-range trial flocks, which resulted in over 20% mortality and emergency beak trimming of the surviving birds.
The trials will feed into a review of the government’s policy on beak trimming in 2015, ahead of the planned ban on the practice in 2016.
For a full report on the red mite workshop and on EPIC, see the next issue of Poultry World.