Transforming the welfare of commercially-reared poultry

At least 6 billion broiler (meat) chickens are produced in Europe every year, including over 800 million in the UK, and the use of ducks for meat is on the increase. Most birds are raised using intensive farming methods. This has become an issue of public concern from an animal welfare standpoint, but from an economic point of view it is also critical that birds are as healthy as possible and mortality levels are kept to a minimum.

Prior to Professor Dawkins’ research, it was widely believed that stocking density (the concentration of birds per square metre) was the key factor affecting the welfare of broiler chickens. In the early 2000s Dawkins and colleagues carried out the largest experiment ever conducted on chickens: a two-year trial on 2.7 million birds, with the unprecedented cooperation of the majority of the UK broiler industry. The study challenged assumptions about stocking density: it did confirm that very high densities affected birds’ welfare, but it also showed for the first time that, at less extreme densities, environmental factors such as poor air and litter quality had a far greater impact on welfare than stocking density alone.

The EU Broiler Directive, a key piece of legislation for the industry which came into force in June 2010, reflected Professor Dawkins’ conclusions: higher stocking densities were permitted, provided that farmers met strict targets for managing the birds’ environment. In the UK, Defra explicitly referred to Dawkins’ findings to inform decisions about how the Directive would be implemented. The legislation has led to a direct improvement in the welfare standards of the 6 billion broiler chickens raised in Europe every year.

More recently, work with Professor Stephen Roberts at the Department of Engineering Science has resulted in a system (‘Farmware’) for continuous monitoring of broiler chicken welfare using smartphone cameras positioned inside chicken houses. The cameras pick up the movements made by the chicken flocks and the software is able to predict health problems days or weeks before these become problematic. Farmware is currently being trialled with major broiler producers in the UK, France and the US.

In terms of duck welfare, water is a key issue. Producers had found that when they provided bathing water, the ducks defecated in it and become contaminated with bacteria, which compromised food safety as well as the health of the ducks. Professor Dawkins conducted a study (again with the full cooperation of producers) which revealed that ducks showed no particular preference for baths that allowed swimming, and spent just as much time under showers or at shallow troughs that allowed head dipping. These two options offered duck producers a simple and hygienic way of improving duck welfare. Dawkins’ research has been also used by the RSPCA to support its recommendations for the commercial farming of ducks.

Professor Dawkins’ research findings have been welcomed across the board by the UK poultry industry and have had a major impact on practices on commercial farms. The British Poultry Council, the industry’s lead body, praises Dawkins for her ‘scientific rigour and... disciplined and wholly objective approach’. The willingness of UK poultry companies to acknowledge the importance of Dawkins’ research and to be guided by its conclusions is evidence of the reach her work has had throughout the UK poultry industry.

Research funded by Defra and the BBSRC.