New project to explore stress in egg-laying hens

The ChickenStress European Training Network has received £3.5 million in investment from the EU Marie Curie Fund.

A new multi-million-pound chicken welfare project is set to explore the causes of stress and resilience in poultry.

The ChickenStress European Training Network has received £3.5 million in investment from the EU Marie Curie Fund.

Over the next four years, 14 international studies will be carried out on the factors that contribute to stress response and resilience in poultry – including breeding, how they are raised and the environment in which they are kept.

“Shoppers consistently ask for chickens to be kept in the highest possible welfare conditions and in Europe in 2012 this led to a ban on battery cages,” said project leader Dr Tom Smulders, of Newcastle University.

“However, while this was introduced with the best of intentions with an eye to improving welfare, unexpected problems have occurred with alternative productions systems.”

The project launched today (4 October) to coincide with World Animal Day. It brings together 20 partners in education and industry, including two major egg industry suppliers, Hendrix Genetics and Vencomatic.

Scientists from Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) will look at sleep behaviour in laying hens and how it is modified by stress and various handling environments.

Dr Smulders added: “We still don’t know what is best for laying hens in these large-group housing systems and it is difficult to ask the chickens. We will study how stress affects the brain and use this knowledge to identify best practice.

“We don’t know, for example, how the environment in which they are reared affects how well they adapt to the free-range systems they will be housed in during adulthood, nor how hatching conditions affect their ability to deal with novel situations later in life. These are the kind of welfare questions we want to answer with this project.”

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