Beak Trimming – the Facts!

This article explains and explores why birds currently have their beaks trimmed in order that you can make up your own minds on this emotive issue.

Feather pecking:

Within a flock of up to 90 birds, each hen will know its position within the pecking order. This makes for a happy flock with just an occassional skirmish to retain and/or asset authority. However, within the commercial world, birds need to be kept in far greater numbers to keep the cost of eggs realistic, anything up to 16,000 in a flock, and it is in these large flocks that behaviours change and can become damaging.

Birds have their beaks trimmed for one reason, and that is to prevent them from causing harm to one another; if beaks are left untrimmed there is an increased danger that feather pecking will become habitual within a large flock, which in turn can quickly lead to what is known as ‘injurious pecking’, and in a worst case scenario, multiple deaths can be caused through injury.

Feather pecking can start for a variety of reasons – it can be a feed deficiency, boredom, or it can be no particular reason at all. It takes one hen to peck one feather which draws blood, and that can attract the attention of other hens; all hens are drawn to red. Once a pattern of behaviour is established within a flock, it is very difficult to contain.

Beak trimming:

Infra-red beak treatment involves the removal of the sharp tip from the beak of laying hens. Day old chicks are treated with an infra-red beam as part of a quick process, over in moments, after which the chicks revert to their natural behaviour. The tip of the beak then falls off around 10 days later, thereby thwarting the bird’s ability to deliver harmful pecks at other birds. However, officially the practice is classed as mutilation so by its nature, beak tipping is an emotive topic.

So what would happen if producers just stopped this practice? Well, farmers are currently carrying out research to find out the definitive answer. I spoke to one farmer who had two flocks running concurrently of 4,500 each, one beak trimmed, the other ‘entire’.

When I spoke to the farmer, the birds were 34 weeks into their laying cycle and there was little difference to show in the two flocks. The ‘entire’ birds were given more activity such as pecker blocks, a mini ‘hay net’, straw bales, egg trays hung up, anything to peck. This enrichment was introduced to the hens as young pullets so they grew up with the idea of having ‘games’ to play with. The farmer commented: “They are like kids with a toy box. A particular ‘toy’ will fall out of favour and the birds will show disinterest, but then a few months later, re-introduction of the same activity will initiate renewed fascination.”

The farmer has undertaken these two flocks at his own risk, with no insurance cover if it goes wrong. If the ‘entire’ birds develop injurious pecking, he could sustain substantial financial loss, but he was determined to see for himself the pros and cons of beak trimming.

What’s being done?:

More farmers are being invited to put forward flocks for research, but with the potential to put their flocks in danger, research has naturally been slow.  However, the British Egg Industry Council has now come up with some funding, and research is focusing on how best to manipulate the birds’ behaviour to avoid injurious pecking.  As well as ‘range enrichment’ (trees and bushes and areas of interest to hens), genetic research is being carried out to try to produce a more docile bird so that she loses that natural aggression when kept in a large flock.

So what are the varying views on debeaking?  The egg industry wants to further delay the ban on beak trimming until there is confidence that welfare will not be compromised.  Many vets are calling for a delay too.  However, the RSPCA has expressed disappointment that the industry has not yet eradicated the serious problems that can occur from injurious pecking, and other groups intend stepping up the campaign to urge the Government to end this practice in 2016.

What happens in Europe? Countries differ, as you would expect.  For example, the UK industry is very light in tipping beaks, seeking only to prevent the hooked end of the beak from causing serious pecking.  However, beak trimming is more severe elsewhere in the EU which can cause some tenderness to young birds and leave them unwilling to take water as touching the drinker can cause discomfort.  Austria has already started phasing out beak trimming, but with the backing of an insurance scheme to compensate farmers who lose birds to cannibalism; their selective breeding has been largely successful in minimising damage.  The Netherlands are bringing forward their proposed date for introducing a ban to 2018.

Our view:

So what is the BHWT view?  We would like to see an end to beak trimming, but not until we are assured that large-scale welfare will not be compromised.  Whilst it’s good that the industry is now investing in research, this needs to be thorough and conclusive.

Alongside an eventual ban on beak trimming we would like to see flock management improved, namely stocking density, diet, pullet rearing methods, light intensity, range enrichment and human contact, all of which have their part to play in maintaining a healthy, happy flock.  Even playing radios can minimise stress, as can the introduction of ‘toys’ as explained by the farmer I spoke to.

The government will be reviewing the beak trimming ban in 2015, taking into account conclusions of research and input from the Beak Trimming Action Group. We hope they have enough evidence to implement the ban in 2016, but if that is not the case and the danger of injurious pecking remains a real threat, we would rather further research is carried out to ensure hens do not suffer during their laying life because of a beak trimming ban.

We believe it is the duty of industry and welfare bodies alike to ensure that this welfare-driven ban can conclusively guarantee a better life for laying hens.