Poultry: welfare recommendations

Updated 27 February 2017

1. Poultry welfare codes

You and any staff working with animals must read, understand and have access to the welfare codes of recommendations. The following birds have their own codes:

Welfare codes aren’t law, but if you don’t follow them it can be used as evidence in court if you’re prosecuted for causing unnecessary suffering to poultry.

You also need to take care of your livestock’s welfare off the farm and in extreme weather. You should see guidance on:

2. Qualifying for the Basic Payment Scheme and cross-compliance

If you’re involved in the Basic Payment Scheme, you need to follow cross-compliance restrictions. To qualify for your subsidy payment, you mustn’t:

  • let your flock overgraze the natural or semi-natural vegetation
  • feed your animals anything harmful to them, or which would make the food they produce harmful to human health

To meet cross compliance welfare standards for meat chickens you need to follow the current Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs):

  • SMR 4 - food and feed law (formerly SMR11)
  • SMR 13 - animal welfare (formerly SMR 18)

The guide to cross-compliance explains what you need to do to follow each SMR.

3. Your farm’s capacity and environmental permits

The Environment Agency regulates intensive poultry farms. If your farm goes over certain capacity levels, you’ll need an environmental permit.

Find out if you need an environmental permit and the rules you’ll need to follow.

4. Managing poultry

You or your flock keeper need to know the normal behaviour of poultry and must watch your flock closely for early signs of distress or disease.

You must carry out a daily inspection to check that all birds are behaving normally and that all systems are operating properly.

The Poultry Club of Great Britain’s guidance on signs of health in poultry explains what to look for.

4.1 Sick, injured and dead birds

You should remove injured, dead or individual sick birds straight away.

Fallen stock is any animal that has:

  • died of natural causes or disease on the farm
  • been killed on the farm for reasons other than human consumption

You must dispose of fallen stock properly.

4.2 Pasture management for free-range poultry

In free-range systems, you must carry out good pasture management to prevent land from churning up. Muddy land can make the birds uncomfortable and be ‘fowl sick’ (infested with disease carrying organisms).

You should move:

  • drinking facilities every 1 or 2 days to avoid the immediate area becoming contaminated
  • portable houses every few days to avoid muddy conditions

4.3 Feather pecking

Feather pecking can be a problem, as it can lead to substantial feather loss, serious injury, cannibalism and death.

You can:

5. Poultry feed and water

You must give all birds daily access to feed. When introducing birds to a new environment, make sure that the birds can find feed and water.

All birds need a balanced daily diet for full health and energy. You should plan any changes in the diet and introduce them gradually.

You must:

  • feed birds a diet that keeps them healthy and is appropriate for their age
  • feed birds at least once a day
  • provide fresh drinking water each day
  • use feeding and watering equipment that minimises the risk of food and drink contamination and competition between birds
  • use feeding and watering equipment that works in all weather and minimises freezing, with plans what to do if they do freeze
  • check feed and water at least once every 24 hours (unless a vet gives you different advice)
  • avoid making sudden changes in the type or quantity of feed
  • give your birds regular access to insoluble grit to help digestion
  • be able to easily clean and disinfect all equipment, including bulk feed bins

You mustn’t:

  • allow stale or contaminated feed or water to build up - replace any immediately
  • give anything other than feed to birds - except for disease prevention or treatments, unless scientific tests have proved it won’t damage their welfare

You mustn’t withhold feed and water to induce moulting. You can withhold feed (but not water) up to 12 hours before slaughter (including catching, loading, transporting, holding and unloading time).

5.1 Use safe feed

You must not place feed that could harm human or animal health on the market.

You must not:

  • feed animals any substance, food or liquid that can cause them unnecessary suffering or injury
  • use feed that makes the animals who eat it unable to produce food that’s safe for humans to eat

You must:

  • arrange for unsafe feed to be withdrawn from the market if you believe that you supplied it - contact your local environmental health officer and the Food Standards Agency if this happens
  • destroy unsafe feed - unless an advising authority (such as a vet) has told you not to
  • tell anyone who uses your feed why you’re withdrawing it

See the guide to food safety and farmed animals for more information on how to follow safe feed laws.

6. Breeding poultry

You mustn’t use any breeding procedures (either natural or artificial) that may cause suffering or injury to birds, except when this is momentary or unlikely to cause lasting injury.

For example, before turkey hens are mated you should fit them with strong saddles to prevent injury to their backs and sides by the males.

7. Poultry housing design

Housing requirements depend on the way you raise your poultry. The design, construction and maintenance of your enclosures, buildings and equipment for laying birds should:

  • help keep good health and good management of the birds
  • be easy to maintain for hygiene and air quality
  • offer shelter from bad weather
  • limit the risk of disease, behavioural problems, traumatic injuries and injuries caused by birds to each other
  • limit contamination from bird droppings
  • keep out predators, rodents and wild animals
  • minimise insect infestations
  • help prevent internal and external parasite infestations (and be easy for you to treat any that do break out)
  • have damp-proof membranes to prevent insulation breakdown, and measures to prevent vermin easily getting to the insulation material

If you house birds, the floors, perches and platforms should be designed so they won’t cause discomfort, distress or injury to the birds. They must offer enough support, especially for the forward facing claws of each foot. Perches should be long enough to allow all birds to roost at the same time.

You should keep floors, perches and platforms dry and clean.

7.1 Free-range birds

Free-range flocks are when you let your flock range rather than keep them in a building.

You should:

  • make sure that birds are protected from bad weather, predators and risks to their health
  • make sure birds have access to a well-drained laying area all the time
  • provide and manage vegetation, outdoor scratch, whole grain feeding, a fresh water supply and overhead cover
  • make sure that feed, water and cover should are far enough away from the house to encourage birds to range

You must make sure that your flock has continuous daytime access to open runs (mostly covered with vegetation). Runs should have a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare.

8. Poultry housing environment

8.1 Ventilation and temperature

You must keep circulation, dust levels, temperature, relative air humidity and gas concentrations within safe limits.  The codes of recommendations will tell you what these are for each bird type.

You must make sure that insulation and ventilation is designed to avoid heat and cold stress. You must also protect confined birds from draughts in cold conditions.

8.2 Safe gas levels

You shouldn’t let staff be exposed above certain gas levels inside poultry housing. These are measured in parts per million (ppm).

Gas Long term exposure limit (ppm) (8-hour day) Short term exposure limit (ppm) (10 minutes)
Ammonia 25 35
Carbon monoxide 50 400
Carbon dioxide 5,000 5,000
Hydrogen sulphide 10 10

8.3 Light levels

You mustn’t keep poultry in buildings with permanent darkness.

You must make sure that all buildings have light levels that let all birds:

  • see one another and be seen clearly
  • look around their surroundings
  • show normal levels of activity

When a building’s natural light levels don’t meet these needs you must have artificial lighting.

8.4 Litter and noise

You must give caged poultry access to a litter area where they can peck and scratch.

In non-caged systems, you must also make sure that all birds have access to a littered area, but this must be deep enough for dust-bathing (approximately 10cm) and easily broken down. Increase the depth of litter over the first 2 months of use to create good litter management.

You should make sure that the sound level is minimal and you must protect your birds from constant or sudden noise.

You should also make sure that ventilation fans, feeding machinery and other equipment cause the least possible noise to disturb the birds.

9. Protect flocks from hazards and emergencies

You must protect your flock from any potential hazards, like:

  • on-farm debris - eg wire or plastic
  • open drains
  • predators - including dogs

You should make plans for dealing with emergencies like fire or flood for housed poultry. Include details of how you’ll move your animals off site in an emergency and make sure your staff have read the plan.

You should make sure that staff can get into all buildings as quickly as possible during an emergency.

9.1 Keeping surfaces safe

You should keep all surfaces that your flock can access (like walls and floors) free from anything that could cause injury or death, like:

  • sharp edges or sticking out parts
  • electrical wires
  • toxic paint or wood preservative -  make sure that any second-hand materials don’t have any lead-based paint

9.2 Extreme weather

You should move flocks to a more suitable area if there’s no natural or artificial shelter to protect grazing stock from extreme weather - heat waves, flooding or being buried by snow.

10. Spotting and protecting against heat stress

Birds suffer from heat stress when they are having difficulty maintaining their correct body temperature.

Read the advisory leaflet on heat stress in poultry.

10.1 Symptoms

You can spot heat stressed poultry as they tend to:

  • move away from other birds
  • move against cooler surfaces, such as the block walls or into moving air streams
  • lift their wings away from their bodies to reduce insulation and expose areas of skin with no feathers
  • pant
  • rest more often
  • reduce feeding
  • drink more water
  • have darkened skin colour (caused by blood diverting from internal organs to the skin)

In the long-term, heat stress will also cause a lower growth rate and reduce egg production.

The body temperature of a broiler needs to remain very close to 41C. If it rises more than 4 degrees above this, the bird will die.

10.2 Protect your birds

The main heat source in a poultry house is the birds’ body heat so the amount of birds will affect this. However, unusually hot or humid weather causes heat stress.

As well as avoiding overpopulation, you can protect your birds by:

  • having a ventilation system, using fans if needed - this is the main way to remove heat from a poultry house
  • getting expert advice on the location and housing design - eg building colour, roof pitch and making use of shade
  • insulation - to reduce heat transfer through the roof and walls
  • providing cool water
  • removing feed ahead of the hottest part of the day - take care when reintroducing food as the sudden activity it causes can kill heat-stressed birds
  • flock walking, letting birds release heat trapped under their bodies - but if they’re very quiet, reluctant to move or have drooping heads it’s best not to disturb them

You should only catch and load birds during the coolest part of the day. Avoid catching or loading on hot or humid days wherever possible. You should also give regular water and adequate ventilation to uncaught birds. You and your staff should be able to recognise the early signs of heat stress and you should have written plans for dealing with hot weather emergencies.

You must have alarms to warn staff when a powered ventilation system is failing when the birds’ welfare depends on it. You must test these at least once a week. You should also make plans to cover breakdowns with suitable equipment (eg self-start generators).

You should display emergency instructions for all staff, complete with contact telephone numbers for:

  • equipment engineers
  • vets
  • an on-call member of staff with the authority to take any action necessary to protect the welfare of the birds

See the guide to transporting animals for guidance on heat stress when transporting poultry.

11. Notifiable diseases

If you suspect a notifiable disease you must tell your nearest APHA office immediately - failure to do this is an offence and you can be fined.

11.1 Unwanted chicks and hatchery waste

When killing young poultry (including chicks, ducklings and poults) you should treat them as humanely as those you plan to sell or keep.

You must follow requirements for on-farm slaughter of poultry and chicks.

12. Mutilating poultry

You can only use the following procedures to manage your birds:

  • beak trimming
  • desnooding (removing the fleshy extension on the forehead of turkeys)
  • de-toeing
  • dubbing (removing the comb or wattle from birds)
  • wing pinioning

The codes of recommendations for individual species also offer guidance on when and how you can carry out certain operations.

12.1 Beak trimming

Beak trimming is carried out to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism in poultry flocks. You can only remove up to one third of the lower and upper beak from any kind of poultry.

The Beak Trimming Action Group published its beak trimming review in 2015 and has recommended strategies to try to reduce feather pecking, which all farmers should be carrying out.

Laying hens

You can only carry out beak trimming on laying hens:

  • using an infra-red beak trimming method
  • on birds under 10 days old - ideally you should carry it out on day-old chicks

12.2 Dewinging

You can’t dewing, pinion, notch, sever tendons or carry out any other operation that mutilates wing tissues.

When you need to prevent flight you can clip the flight feathers of one wing.

You do not though normally have to this as most birds used for domestic production have limited flight capability.

13. Animal welfare inspections

Inspectors from the Animal and Plant Health Agency and your local authority can visit your farm. They’ll normally give notice but may not if they’ve had a complaint about how you’re treating them.

Find out more at the guide to farm inspections.

They’ll check how you’re caring for your animals and if you’re following cross-compliance restrictions. You must allow inspectors to:

  • see all your animals in their normal rearing environment
  • see a demonstration of how your alarm system (to alert you if automated ventilation and other systems fail) and its back-up generators work
  • examine specific animals on request
  • take any samples, carcasses or photographs they need
  • inspect veterinary medicine records and mortality records
  • check any other records that will show you’re meeting requirements (like animal feed records)
  • ask if there’s been a known or suspected outbreak of a notifiable disease on your premises during the year

14. Getting more information

You can get further information from: