The UK egg industry is uniting in opposition to government plans to ban the practice of beak tipping – a procedure that involves trimming the sharp point right at the tip of a hen’s beak to prevent the birds pecking each other.
Tipping is done when the birds are less than ten-days-old by highly skilled staff using infrared technology to make the procedure quick and painless.
It ensures that the birds cannot injure each other when living in large flocks. Pecking occurs naturally – we all know about hens and their ‘pecking order’ – but it can become a serious problem in large flocks with birds being pecked to death in some instances.
Despite this strong welfare argument, there is now a significant danger that the procedure may be banned following intense political lobbying by certain animal rights organisations. As a result the Government is looking to introduce legislation from 1 January 2016.
Similar proposals by the previous government were abandoned in the face of overwhelming evidence that such a step was not in the best interests of egg-laying hens.
Defra-funded research is being carried out by Bristol University and the Scottish Rural University College working with untipped flocks and looking at the potential impact of managing birds on a commercial scale.
There has been one incidence where a flock of 16,000 birds had to receive emergency beak trimming after pecking led to a large number of bird deaths.
The trials are still ongoing.
In the face of a possible ban, representatives of the egg industry - the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), British Free Range Egg Producers’ Association and British Egg Industry Council - have united to urge farmers to invite local MPs out onto their farms to highlight some of the issues first hand.
We must emphasise that we are still some way off being able to confidently keep untipped laying hens and achieve acceptable levels of welfare.
The poultry industry will continue to work hard to achieve the goal of managing hens without the need for tipping, but it is imperative that next year when the research is finished, if the evidence shows that a ban will be detrimental to hen welfare that it should be postponed until such times as our high levels of welfare can be guaranteed.
The NFU has now published a pack of information to help local poultry farmers who want to get in touch with their MPs. This is available free online by visiting www.nfuonline.com/sectors/poultry/beak-tipping-lobby-pack/
Alternatively farmers can contact me directly for more information by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Dickinson is a county adviser with the National Farmers’ Union and is the membership organisation’s regional poultry expert.