Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mary Baxter, winner of the WPSA Poultry Scholarship reports on her MSc AABAW dissertation

Mary Baxter, winner of the WPSA (World Poultry Science Association) Scholarship reports on her dissertation, 'An investigation into the effectiveness of enrichment items provided to laying hens and pullets.'
I am currently on the home stretch of the MSc AABAW (Masters in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare) at Edinburgh’s R(D)SVS and having a life-long interest in poultry, I chose to carry out my dissertation with Dr Laura Dixon at the SRUC Avian Science Research Centre in Auchincruive, Ayr. My study is a preliminary investigation of enrichment items provided to laying hens and pullets that could be used instead of, or in conjunction with, current commercially available enrichments and will help indicate whether these items need to be presented pre-lay to the birds.
Following the 2012 ban, old-style battery cages have been replaced with furnished colony cages. These cages contain more birds, 60-80 hens rather than 6, they provide a total of 750cm2 per bird, a perch, scratching area and a nesting area with plastic coated wire or astroturf flooring and enclosed with plastic curtains. However, the design of these enrichments can be quite artificial and may not have high usage or satisfy the birds’ behavioural needs. Additionally, the approaching 2016 ban on beak trimming has prompted a new urgency in improving laying hen conditions and management in order to minimise harmful feather pecking and cannibalistic behaviours. Defra has recently put out a call to further investigate and improve nestbox design, indicating that the current enrichments provided may not be adequate. Finally, birds of different ages and reproductive status may have different preferences for enrichment items and some items may need to be introduced to younger birds to be used effectively when older.
                                                            Furnished colony cages.
To investigate this, two batches of 48 birds, 24 pullets and 24 hens, were brought into the Avian Science Research Centre and presented with three enrichment treatments or a control (based on industry standards) in three-day blocks for three weeks, based on a Latin Square Design. The enrichments were provided in addition to minimum standards and consisted of an ‘ideal’ wooden nest box with straw bedding, a sandbox for scratching and dust bathing, or a hanging cabbage for foraging and pecking. Hanging string was also provided as standard to gauge usage. Behavioural data was recorded using a combination of focal and scan sampling. Location of eggs laid and feather scoring were also used as an indirect method of measuring nest box preference and feather pecking prevalence respectively.  
Additional enrichments in the birds’ enclosures should provide them with more to do in their environment, leaving less time available for harmful behaviours. Providing items that will satisfy behavioural needs, such as foraging and nesting, is thus, far the best route to decreasing feather pecking, aggression and cannibalistic behaviour in commercial systems.
This study will give indications of what modifications or additional enrichment items can be used to improve bird welfare in production systems and will be a good starting point for larger, industry-based studies where the practical use of these items can be better assessed. 
I have greatly enjoyed my time at Auchincruive so far and am grateful to the ASRC team for all their support and for the help and guidance received from R(D)SVS staff and the WPSA poultry award.

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