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Keeping chickens to the highest welfare standards


Among the various presentations at the 2014 Soil Association conference, I wanted to bring back and share Jessica Stokes’ study.(1)  She shared the emerging veterinary scientific thinking about mass chickens kept for their meat or egg production.  I hoped that by relaying my notes, her ideas might interest anyone keeping  chickens on a small scale.

It turns out that in the years since World War II, veterinary thinking has moved an incredible distance; from an awareness written about by Ruth Harrison (2) that chickens often had  “a life not worth living” (3).  She wrote about “animal machines”.  She helped to inspire chicken farmers and consumers alike to expect chickens to have a life that is “worth living” and moving to what we might describe as “a good life”.

The Brambell Report of 1965 recommended that animals should have the freedom to stand up, lie down, turn around, groom themselves and stretch their limbs. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) developed these into the Five Freedoms, which are a framework for the analysis of animal welfare.

A video (4) was used to illustrate the ways in which the highest standards of welfare can be met. Some, possibly not all of these may apply to the small chicken keepers among us.

Jessica  suggested that hens have a variety of behaviours but stress isn’t something I would have considered to occur in a high welfare setting, but she claimed hens can be easily stressed so that when keepers attend to their hens they should give warning of their arrival and make a sound to warn the hens of their imminent arrival  in the enclosure.  Comfort against draught was stressed; that where a number of hens are kept, there should be nesting choices with nest boxes at different heights.  There should be a variety of surfaces in the enclosure including deep straw for scratching and a surface for them to dust bath.  Novelty should be provided with logs, suspending twine and CDs, or bringing in assorted piles of pruned branches. If hens can be let out, they should be allowed to forage in hedgerows. Do the birds like drinking from dirty puddles or feeders? I wasn’t sure whether there was a right answer to that one!  I suppose chicken keepers are supposed to experiment and see whether they select dirty water or clean when given a choice.

(1) Animal Welfare Adviser, Soil Association. (2) “In fact, if one person is unkind to an animal it is considered to be cruelty, but where a lot of people are unkind to animals, especially in the name of commerce, the cruelty is condoned and, once large sums of money are at stake, will be defended to the last by otherwise intelligent people.”  Ruth Harrison (3) One has been made aware of by Animal Liberationists of the horrific conditions filmed inside intensive units.  Organisations like Compassion in World Farming have continuously challenged the welfare standards of this industry. (4) Video made at Bulborough farm, an organic free range chicken keeping enterprise in Tring, Herts.


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