Scottish researchers are involved in a pioneering project to improve the welfare of laying hens by studying how stress affects their brains.
Scientists at Scotland’s Rural College, SRUC, are involved in the Europe-wide ChickenStress European Training Network, which sets out to help egg producers attain the best welfare standards for their chickens.
The SRUC team will look at sleep behaviour in laying hens, and how it is modified by stress and different housing environments.
“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 Dr Tom Smulders, reader in evolutionary neuroscience at Newcastle University, who is leading the £3.5 million project.
Today, on #WorldAnimalDay2019, we officially launch the @ChickenStress network, an EU funded research and training network which aims to improve the lives of laying hens around the world. Check out our website at https://t.co/1tGajq9Se1. RT this message! @EU_H2020 @MSCActions
— ChickenStress (@ChickenStress) October 4, 2019
“However, while this was introduced with the best of intentions with an eye to improving welfare, unexpected problems have occurred with alternative production systems.”
He said 14 international studies involving industry partners will take place over the next four years to ascertain what factors contribute to stress response and resilience in poultry. These will include examining what causes stress in chickens from their breeding, how they are raised, and the environment they are kept in.
“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,” said Dr Smulders.
#DYK that chicken can be stressed by egg production? #EUfunded project @ChickenStress looks into how to improve the well-being of egg-laying chickens
🐔 https://t.co/XgQZH6qB3J#WorldAnimalDay #ResearchImpactEU #REA pic.twitter.com/Ozo4FfiWog
— Horizon 2020🇪🇺 (@EU_H2020) October 4, 2019
“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.”
The projects will use a variety of methods to measure stress responses in laying hens, including markers in the brain, stress hormones, and behavioural tests and observations.