The government is being misinformed on major welfare issues for laying hens by the independent advisory body, Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC).
Recent recommendations by FAWC suggesting the use of enriched cages as an acceptable alternative to battery cages for laying hens and a proposal to permit the continued use of beak trimming to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism among hen flocks are both deeply flawed.
The scientific evidence shows that enriched cages do not have the potential to meet many of the welfare requirements of hens. The small space provided in enriched cages and the lack of a complex and interesting environment are indicative of a system that cannot fulfil the birds' welfare needs.
The space and facilities provided in enriched cages are so inadequate that the system deprives hens of the ability to meaningfully fulfil natural behaviours, leading to abnormal behaviours, frustration, suffering and body degeneration.
In a letter to the government warning of the flaws in FAWC's recommendations, Peter Stevenson, Chief Policy Advisor for Compassion in World Farming advises: "The way forward for laying hen welfare is to move to systems that genuinely offer the potential for higher welfare such as free range, organic and barn systems."
In 2002 Defra banned the beak trimming of laying hens from 2011. FAWC has now recommended that the ban on the beak trimming of laying hens should be repealed. Compassion in World Farming is urging Defra to ignore this recommendation. It would be a highly retrograde step to revoke this important welfare reform.
FAWC have uncritically accepted the argument that hens housed in barn or free range systems will engage in feather-pecking and cannibalism unless they are beak-trimmed. Yet scientific evidence and practical experience show that it is possible to largely avoid feather-pecking and cannibalism without resorting to beak trimming.
"The scientific literature shows that the correct way to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism is not to beak trim the birds, but to keep them in good conditions and to select for birds that are less prone to feather pecking and cannibalism," says Peter Stevenson.
Design and management aimed at providing opportunities for hens to forage and dust bathe are likely to reduce the incidence of feather pecking; in particular a sufficient quantity of good quality litter must be provided and maintained in a dry state.
"When Defra banned beak trimming in 2002 they accepted the argument that the correct way to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism is not to beak trim the birds, but to keep them in good conditions and to select for birds that are less prone to feather pecking and cannibalism," continues Peter Stevenson.
"We urge Defra to adhere to this thinking and to maintain the 2011 date for the ban on beak trimming."