How to manage the welfare of flocks on the farm or in a poultry house and maintain good practice
All animals, including farmed poultry, must be looked after in ways that meet their welfare needs - ensuring they do not experience any unnecessary distress or suffering.
This guide deals specifically with welfare considerations for managing poultry livestock on the farm.
- pigeons (reared for meat)
- guinea fowl
- emus (usually kept in zoos or as pets)
- rheas (usually kept in zoos or as pets).
This guide outlines good practice and the duty of care for farming poultry and explains why you must maintain poultry housing along with adequate provision of feed and water. In addition, it offers guidance on good stock management - with details of acceptable and unacceptable mutilations.
Good practice and duty of care to poultry
Maintaining high standards for the health and welfare of your poultry is essential for efficiency and ensuring consumer confidence in your produce.
The Codes of Recommendations for the welfare of meat chickens and the welfare of laying hens contain advice for stock-keepers on best husbandry practice. The existing Codes continues to apply under the new Animal Welfare Act, but with the introduction of the Act and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 (as amended), the references to the legislation throughout the Codes are now out of date.
Welfare codes are not law, but failure to follow their provisions may be used as evidence in court when a prosecution is taken for causing unnecessary suffering to livestock. The Code of Recommendations for the Welfare of meat chickens is under review and so interim guidance is available.
- Code of Recommendations for the welfare of laying hens
- Code of Recommendations for the welfare of meat chickens and breeding chickens
The five freedoms of animal welfare
The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) - a government advisory body - has established five freedoms for animal welfare. These state that, at all times, you have a duty of care to ensure that your animals are free:
- from hunger and thirst - animals must have access to fresh water and a diet which will maintain health and vigour
- from discomfort - an appropriate environment should be provided, including shelter and a comfortable resting area
- from pain, injury or disease - you must ensure the prevention of illnesses, or rapid diagnosis and treatment
- to express normal behaviour - sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind should all be provided
- from fear and distress - you must provide conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
According to the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 - made under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 - the standard of protection extends across all locations.
The government consults with FAWC to produce specific guidance for the care of animals:
- on farm
- at slaughter
For more information on poultry welfare off the farm, see the guide on poultry welfare off the farm.
You or your stock keeper need to know the normal behaviour of poultry and must watch your flock closely for early signs of distress or disease. If you spot any sign of trouble, you should act immediately to put the situation right. If the cause is not obvious - or your remedial action is not effective - you should seek veterinary, technical or further advice as soon as possible.
A daily inspection must be carried out to check that all birds are behaving normally and that all systems are operating properly.
Signs of good and bad health in poultry
Important indications of poultry health include:
- clear, bright eyes
- good posture
- vigorous movements if unduly disturbed
- active feeding and drinking
- clean, healthy skin, shanks and feet
Early signs of ill-health may include changes in:
- feed and water intake
- egg production - ie reduced
- egg quality - eg shell defects
Injured, dead or individual sick birds should be removed promptly. All dead birds are known as fallen stock and must be disposed of by following certain guidelines and rules. For more information, see the guide on fallen stock.
The larger a flock is, the greater the level of skill you will need to look after its welfare. You shouldn’t increase the size of a unit until it is reasonably certain that you or the stock keeper in charge will be able to cope.
In free-range systems, good pasture management is essential to avoid land becoming churned up. These muddy conditions can cause the birds discomfort and encourage the land to become ‘fowl sick’ - infested with disease carrying organisms. The time taken for land to become heavily contaminated depends on the type of soil and density of stocking, and for this reason you must carry out regular sampling for parasites.
You should also move drinking facilities every one or two days to avoid the immediate area becoming contaminated.
In addition, you should move portable houses regularly to avoid muddy conditions.
Feather pecking - when birds aggressively peck one another - can be a problem, particularly in free-range systems where it can ultimately lead to cannibalism.
If feather pecking is a problem in your flock, you must tackle it immediately by reducing sources of stress to the birds, eg reducing light intensity and ensuring the availability of good quality litter.
Beak or bill trimming should only be employed as a last resort if more suffering would be caused to the flock without it. See the page in this guide on poultry husbandry including breeding and mutilations.
Poultry husbandry including breeding and mutilations
You should not mutilate your flock in any way. This includes limiting a bird’s vision by fitting any appliance or using a method that penetrates or mutilates its nasal septum and mutilating wings.
Beak or bill trimming
If your flock have a problem with feather pecking, you may have to consider trimming their bills, but this should only be carried out as a last resort. For more information on feather pecking, see the page in this guide on poultry management.
You can only carry out beak or bill trimming according to the following conditions:
- on hens used for laying, only infra-red technology is permitted to carry out beak trimming, preferably on day-old chicks but in all cases when they’re less than ten days old
- on conventionally reared meat chickens - in the rare occasions when it becomes necessary - only a qualified person acting under veterinary advice is permitted to carry out beak trimming and only on birds less than ten days old
- on ducks or turkeys before they leave the brooder or rearing accommodation
- if you are over 18 and qualified to carry out the correct technique
Dewinging, pinioning, notching, tendon severing or other operations that involve mutilating wing tissues are not allowed. When it is necessary to prevent flight, you can clip the flight feathers of one wing. Since most birds used for domestic production have limited flight capability, it is not routinely practiced. It may be used on ducks.
Desnooding of turkeys
You should carry out the desnooding of turkeys as soon as possible after hatching. The operation must be carried out by a vet if it is performed after the first 21 days of its life.
Toe cutting of turkeys
In order to avoid injury to turkey hens during mating, the last joint of the inside toes of the male breeding birds should be removed. You should perform toe cutting within the first 72 hours of life. If it is carried out after the first 72 hours of life, it must be carried out by a vet.
You should select particular hybrids when breeding poultry. This helps to minimise the risk of welfare and health problems.
You should not use breeding procedures, which are likely to cause suffering or injury to the birds, unless it is momentary or minimal and would not cause lasting injury.
Before turkey hens are mated, you should fit them with strong saddles - eg made from canvas - to prevent injury to their backs and sides by the males.
Poultry raising environment
The environment that you raise your poultry in is crucial to healthy development and to prevent any disease outbreaks.
Ventilation and temperature
You must keep circulation, dust levels, temperature, relative air humidity and gas concentrations within limits that are not harmful to the animals.
Additionally, you must ensure that provision of insulation and ventilation is designed to avoid heat and cold stress. You must also take care to protect confined birds from draughts in cold conditions.
You must ensure that your livestock is not kept in buildings with permanent darkness.
Where the natural light available in a building is insufficient to meet the physiological needs of the livestock then you must provide appropriate artificial lighting.
You must ensure that all buildings have light levels sufficient to allow all hens to see one another and be seen clearly, to investigate their surroundings visually and to show normal levels of activity.
Litter and noise
You must give laying hens access to a litter area that makes it possible for pecking and scratching.
In alternative systems, you must make sure that all birds have access to a littered area, which should be maintained so that it can easily be broken down, and at an adequate depth for dust-bathing (approximately ten centimetres). To ensure good litter management, you can make up this depth of litter over the first two months of use. You should make sure that birds have access to good quality substrate for dust-bathing and to prevent health problems, in particular foot, leg and breast lesions.
You must ensure that the level of sound is minimised and you must protect your birds from constant or sudden noise.
You should construct, place, operate and maintain ventilation fans, feeding machinery or other equipment in such a way that they cause the least possible noise.
The requirements for housing poultry vary according to the way your poultry is raised. The design, construction and maintenance of your enclosures, buildings and equipment for laying birds should:
- allow the fulfilment of essential biological needs and the maintenance of good health, and facilitate good management of the birds
- allow for easy maintenance of good conditions of hygiene and air quality
- provide shelter from adverse weather conditions
- limit the risk of disease, disorders manifested by behavioural changes, traumatic injuries to the birds, injuries caused by birds to each other and contamination of the birds by droppings
- exclude predators, rodents, wild animals, and minimise insects
- allow for the prevention and treatment of infestations of internal and external parasites
- incorporate damp-proof membranes to prevent insulation breakdown, and measures to prevent easy access by vermin to the insulation material
Council Directive 99/74/EC and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 set out minimum standards for ‘enriched’ cages including increased space allowance, claw shortening device, perch, nest boxes and litter for scratching and pecking. The legislation bans the use of conventional ‘battery’ cages from 1 January 2012 for producers with more than 350 laying hens.
Enriched systems require:
- a minimum of 750 square centimetres per bird
- a nest and perching space of 15 centimetres per bird
- litter such that pecking and scratching are possible
- 12 centimetres of feeding trough per bird
- at least two nipple drinkers or two cups within easy reach of each hen
- incorporated damp-proof membranes to prevent insulation breakdown, and measures to stop easy access by vermin to the insulation material
The details given below apply to all newly built - or rebuilt - non-cage systems and all new systems of production for keeping laying hens. From 1 January 2007, you must make sure that all non-cage systems of production for keeping laying hens have:
- a maximum stocking density of nine birds per square metre
- at least 250 square centimetres of litter area per bird
- 15 centimetres of perch per hen
- ten centimetres of feeder per bird and at least one drinker for every ten birds
- one nest for every seven birds or one square metre of nest space for every 120 birds
- water and feeding troughs should be raised so the food is not scattered
If you do not keep your flock in a building (and let them range), you should make sure, where necessary and possible, that birds have protection from adverse weather conditions, predators and risks to their health. They should also have access to a well-drained lying area all the time.
Your flock must have continuous daytime access to open runs, mainly covered with vegetation, which have a maximum stocking density of 2,500 birds per hectare.
Birds should be encouraged to use the outdoor area by the provision of adequate, suitable, properly managed vegetation, outdoor scratch whole grain feeding, a fresh water supply and overhead cover, all sufficiently far from the house to encourage birds to range.
In addition, all the rules for keeping barn hens apply to keeping free-range hens.
For more information on egg marketing rules and regulations, see the guide poultry farms: general regulations.
Advance plans should be made for dealing with emergencies such as fire or flood.
If you have to keep your buildings locked, you should make sure that rapid entry is always possible in case of emergency. Download Defra’s advice on farm fires and animal welfare from the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website (PDF, 80KB).
Feed and water for poultry
According to the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000, you must make sure that you:
- feed your birds a wholesome diet for their age and species and enough to maintain good health
- give your birds access to an adequate supply of fresh feed and water - a minimum of once every 24 hours and more regularly if necessary to meet their physiological needs - unless a vet gives you different advice
- provide feeding and watering equipment designed, constructed, placed and maintained to avoid contamination and minimise competition between birds
- provide the number of feeders and drinkers suitable for the number of birds housed, and that they meet minimum requirements set out in relevant legislation for that species and type of accommodation - for more information, see the page in this guide on poultry housing.
- regularly clean and disinfect feeding and watering equipment
- do not allow stale or contaminated feed or water to accumulate and replace them immediately
- provide feeding and watering equipment that operates in all weather conditions, with precautions to minimise freezing and a contingency plan if this happens
- avoid making sudden changes in the type or quantity of feed
- do not withhold feed and water, eg to induce moulting - it is acceptable to withhold feed (but not water) for up to 12 hours before slaughter (12 hours is inclusive of catching, loading, transporting, pre-slaughter lairaging and unloading)
- do not give any other substance to birds - except for disease prevention or treatment and other medical purposes - unless scientific tests have proven it isn’t detrimental to their welfare
- monitor consumption of water and feed as this is a good indication of general well-being of poultry
- give your birds regular access to insoluble grit to aid digestion
- take care after any change of system to ensure your birds find the water and feed points
Heat stress in poultry
Birds suffer from heat stress when they are having difficulty maintaining their correct body temperature.
Heat stressed poultry may display the following symptoms:
- trying to move away from other birds
- moving against cooler surfaces, such as the block walls or into moving air streams
- lifting their wings away from their bodies to reduce insulation and expose areas of skin with no feathers
- resting - to reduce heat generated by activity
- reduced feeding
- drinking more water
- 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 reduced egg production.
The body temperatures of a broiler need to remain very close to 41°C. If it rises more than four degrees above this, the bird will die.
How to protect your birds
The dominant source of heat within a poultry house is the birds’ body heat, so population size is a key factor. However, usually hot or humid weather causes heat stress. Therefore, as well as avoiding overpopulation, you can protect your birds through:
- seeking expert advice on the location and design of their housing - eg building colour, roof pitch and making use of shade
- insulation - to reduce transfer of heat through roof and walls
- having an adequate ventilation system, using fans if necessary - this is the main method of removing heat from a poultry house
You and your staff should be able to recognise the early signs of heat stress and written plans should be made in advance for dealing with hot weather emergencies.
Alarms to warn staff when a powered ventilation system is failing are mandatory where the birds’ welfare depends on it - and you should test these at least once a week.
You should also make contingency plans to cover such breakdowns with adequate equipment, eg self-start generators, available to protect the birds from unnecessary distress.
You should clearly display emergency instructions for all staff, complete with contact telephone numbers for:
- equipment engineers
- veterinary surgeons
- an on-call member of staff with the authority to take any action necessary to protect the welfare of the birds
Useful techniques to reduce or prevent heat stress include:
- providing cool water for the birds to replace that lost through panting
- removing the feed ahead of the hottest part of the day, particularly where systems can be lifted to also increase floor space and air flow - however, you need to take extreme care over the reintroduction of food as the sudden activity this causes can prove fatal in birds that are still heat-stressed
- flock walking to enable birds to release the heat trapped under their bodies - however, you should take great care to observe bird behaviour, if they are very quiet, reluctant to move or have drooping heads it is probably best not to disturb them further
Be sure to take extra caution when stocks need to be depopulated.
Make use of weather forecasts to avoid clashes with hot or humid days - catching and loading should ideally be timed with the coolest part of the day. You or a team leader monitoring the birds’ behaviour should co-ordinate these operations, with the authority to stop a catch if necessary.
Uncaught birds should also be given water regularly and adequate ventilation - using additional mobile fans, if necessary.
You should also ensure that stocking densities in modules and crates are modified according to:
- temperature and humidity
- module or crate design
- trailer design - curtain-sided or open-sided
- distance and speed of journey - short, slow journeys are hotter than longer, faster ones
You should never leave loaded modules or trailers standing in direct sunlight. If a delay occurs, you must provide ventilation by driving the vehicle around or unloading the crates into a cool, well-ventilated place - for example, back in the shed. Facilities at the other end should offer equivalent or superior ventilation to the vehicle in motion.
If catching and transport is contracted out, you should always have one of your own members of staff present to take any action necessary to safeguard the welfare of the birds.
Poultry welfare at slaughter and fallen stock
The welfare of animals at the time of slaughter or killing is covered by European Union Directive 93/119 and UK regulations. These rules state that animals must never be submitted to any avoidable stress, pain or suffering, and must be handled, stunned and killed using specific methods by licensed slaughtermen.
There are special arrangements when specific slaughter methods are used for religious purposes, eg the need for a slaughter licence for the food of Jews and Muslims.
The welfare requirements also apply to on-farm slaughter - although an owner killing an animal for private consumption does not need a slaughter licence.
For more information, see the guide on slaughter of livestock: welfare regulations.
Fallen stock can be any bird or animal that has:
- died of natural causes or disease on the farm
- been killed on the farm for reasons other than human consumption
Farmers with fallen stock must use approved means and places for their disposal. The National Fallen Stock Company (NFSCo) can help with the disposal of fallen stock and advise on the disease prevention rules, as part of the National Fallen Stock Scheme (NFSS).
If you suspect that a bird or animal has died of a notifiable disease, you must tell your local Animal Health Office (AHO) immediately.
For contact details of your local Animal Health Office use the postcode search tool on the AHVLA website.
There are also special regulations governing on-farm incineration, and the disposal of dead horses.
For more information, see the guide on fallen stock.
Unwanted chicks and hatchery waste
Young poultry, including chicks, ducklings, poults etc should be treated as humanely as those intended for retention or sale and should always be killed humanely by someone with sufficient knowledge or training.
The method used should involve exposure to a source of 100 per cent carbon dioxide. However, for very small numbers neck dislocation may be used. Birds should be inspected thoroughly afterwards to ensure they are all dead.
All hatchery waste should be treated to instantaneously kill any living embryos, eg by rapid shredding.
Further information on poultry welfare on the farm
For more information and guidance on livestock and agricultural farming, the sources listed below may be useful.
One of the major roles of Defra is to help the farming industry operate as efficiently as possible. Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. They also oversee a number of agencies that work with arable farmers, imports and exports of crops and implement pest and disease controls.
Animal Health is an executive agency of Defra and is responsible for ensuring the welfare of farmed animals in Great Britain. The agency is also responsible for managing outbreaks of notifiable animal diseases and helping to ensure suitable standards of egg and dairy production are met.
The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is responsible for licences and schemes for growers as well as for running the Single Payment Scheme (SPS).
If you are involved in the SPS, you need to be aware of cross compliance restrictions that are relevant to poultry farming. In particular, to qualify for your subsidy payment, you must not:
- allow your flock to overgraze the natural or semi-natural vegetation
- carry out unsuitable supplementary feeding - unless vital to ensure animal welfare during periods of extreme weather
This over-grazing is defined as when the growth, quality or diversity of self-seeded or self-propagated vegetation is adversely affected. Supplementary feeding is considered to be unsuitable if the resulting trampling and churning of the ground by the birds or vehicles used to transport the feed have a similarly adverse affect.
The Environment Agency is a public body responsible for helping to protect and improve the environment in England and Wales.
It regulates intensive poultry farms. If your farm exceeds certain capacity thresholds, you will need an environmental permit to operate. Find out more about environmental regulations and licences for poultry farmers on the Environment Agency website.
The British Poultry Council (BPC) is the voice of the poultry meat sector. As the only trade association for producers of poultry meat and products, they are the key link between member companies, government and stakeholders. Read about the role of the BPC on the BPC website.
The Assured Chicken Production (ACP) scheme is an industry-wide initiative that addresses all the important issues concerning the production of chicken. It is an independently assessed assurance scheme designed to deliver confidence to the consumer. Standards have been written to include best practice in food safety, bird health, welfare and traceability. Read about the ACP scheme on the ACP website.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. It aims to promote successful and socially responsible agriculture and horticulture, while ensuring the long-term viability of rural communities.
Further information on the requirements for conventionally reared meat chickens and implementation of Council Directive 2007/43/EC, including notification of stocking above 33kg/m2 and application for Grandfather Rights.
The welfare of all poultry is protected by The Animal Welfare Act 2006 and supplemented by Schedule 1 of Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 as amended. The welfare of laying hens and conventionally reared meat chickens are further protected by more detailed requirements in Schedules 5 (laying hens) and 5A (meat chickens) in the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 as amended.
- Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007
- Guidance to the 2007 Regulations
- Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2010
- Council Directive 2007/43 laying down minimum rules for the production of chickens kept for meat production
- Council Regulation (EEC) 1906/90 on certain marketing standards for poultry meat
- Council Regulation (EEC) 1538/91 introducing detailed rules for implementing Regulation (EEC) 1906/90
- Schedule 1 of Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 as amended
- Schedule 5 of Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 as amended
- Schedule 5A of Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2010
Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA) carries out welfare inspections on farms to check that the legislation and the welfare codes are being followed. In addition to spot checks and planned visits, AHVLA urgently follows up all complaints and allegations of poor welfare on specific farms. Where welfare problems are found, AHVLA usually gives advice or warnings to farmers which, in most cases, results in satisfactory improvements being made. However, where necessary, Defra initiates prosecution action against farmers, sometimes in co-operation with local authorities and/or the RSPCA. AHVLA can be contacted via your local AHVLA Office.
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