Laying Hens: Feather Pecking & Cannibalism (PB10596)


Feather pecking is an abnormal behaviour whereby some laying hens peck others sometimes removing feathers, which can result in poor plumage, patches of feather loss, skin damage and even death. Where feather pecking develops into injurious pecking and the protective function of the bird’s plumage is lost, this can trigger cannibalism which is a serious animal welfare problem. Feather pecking is distinct from aggressive pecking which is often aimed at the head, although in aggressive pecking there may be elements of feather pecking present.

The traditional method of alleviating the problems associated with feather pecking has been to beak trim laying hens. This is normally done when the birds are 7 to 10 days old. Beak trimming is the removal of not more than one-third part of both a bird’s upper and lower beaks, measured from the tip towards the entrance to the nostrils. Under the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England)(Amendment) Regulations 2002 (SI 2002 No. 1646) Schedule D, however, beak trimming of laying hens in all systems, including free range, will be prohibited from 1st January 2011. Recognising that the requirement to stop routine beak trimming represented a major technical challenge to the Industry, during 2002 Defra announced the setting up of an “Action Plan on Beak Trimming” working group, whose purpose was to draw up an action plan to work towards the ban on beak trimming in all systems of production by the end of 2010. As part of this process, a number of workshops were arranged to provide a forum for discussion on the practical management of feather pecking and cannibalism in free range flocks.

The guidance contained in this booklet is a distillation of the views expressed at those workshops by those with first-hand knowledge of tackling the issue on a day to day basis. It is not a statutory or industry code and is not guaranteed to be effective in all circumstances. The approach adopted at the workshops and throughout this booklet is one of ‘risk analysis’ – i.e. what factors increase the risk of feather pecking and cannibalism and which factors reduce the risk. Whilst the guidance is based on best practice found in the field it should be noted that for some of the suggestions, no research work has been undertaken to scientifically validate these findings.

It should also be stressed that the adoption of any of the techniques mentioned in this booklet should be viewed in the context of the overall operation of the unit. For example, certain techniques employed may indeed reduce the incidence of feather pecking, but could at the same time, lead to other husbandry problems. Changes should be made cautiously, as changing one factor can affect another. Also, the very unpredictable nature of feather pecking should not be underestimated. It is often not clear what the trigger factor is.

Advice should therefore be taken from your veterinary or other adviser before any changes are made to the husbandry system operating on the farm.

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