Beak Trimming (Laying Hens)

Environment Food and Rural Affairs written statement – made on 8th November 2010.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am today laying an amendment to The Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) 2007 before Parliament, principally to extend the use of routine beak trimming of laying hens beyond 31 December 2010, while restricting the method used to the infra-red technique only. I know this is a significant issue for the House, as demonstrated by the large number of signatures for my right hon. Friend Peter Bottomley (EDM 260). I therefore want to set out the background behind these amending regulations and explain this Government's approach to working towards a future ban on beak trimming.[This section has been corrected on 12 November 2010, column 4MC — read correction]

Currently, the UK makes use of a derogation in the EU Council Directive 99/74/EC on the welfare of laying hens, which allows for beak trimming of laying hens that are less than 10 days old if carried out by qualified staff. The procedure is only permitted to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism. The Mutilations (Permitted Procedures) (England) Regulations 2007 implements this derogation but only allows routine beak trimming to be carried out until 31 December 2010, after which beak trimming of laying hens would be banned. The ban was put in place when the laying hens directive was implemented in the UK in 2002, allowing eight years to develop a strategy to manage birds without the need to beak trim. At the same time, the previous Government established the Beak Trimming Action Group, comprising representatives from industry, welfare groups, DEFRA, and scientific and veterinary professions. The group's task was to devise an action plan which would work towards the ban on beak trimming by the end of 2010-looking at changes to management practices or selecting birds that are less prone to feather pecking. However, progress in the control of injurious pecking under commercial conditions in England has not been sufficient to implement a ban on beak trimming without causing a significant risk to animal welfare. In the meantime, a new infra-red technique was developed and is now used to beak trim birds commercially, as an alternative to hot blading. Currently, the infra-red technique is the method used on 95% of all beak trimmed laying hens.

The Farm Animal Welfare Council reviewed the evidence in 2007 and 2009. On both occasions it recommended that, until an alternative means of controlling injurious pecking in laying hens can be developed, the proposed ban on beak trimming should not be introduced, but should be deferred until it can be demonstrated reliably under commercial conditions that laying hens can be managed without beak trimming, without a greater risk to their welfare than that caused by beak trimming itself. The Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that infra-red beak treatment should be the only method used routinely, as the evidence indicated that it does not induce chronic pain.

While the Government's long-term goal is to ban routine beak trimming, the Farm Animal Welfare Council's advice represents a sensible and pragmatic approach in the circumstances we have inherited and is in the interests of laying hen welfare. A ban on beak trimming for laying hens at this current time would result in significant welfare problems through outbreaks of feather pecking and cannibalism. The Government consider it is therefore right that the legislation needs to be amended to remove the impending ban on routine beak trimming, which would otherwise come into force on 1 January 2011.

However, I want to emphasise that the Government see the proposed removal of the ban as very much an interim solution. The previous Government's consultation on proposals to amend the legislation, did not propose any date to review the policy or any date for a future ban. This Government have taken heed of the strength of feeling on this issue and decided to adopt the Farm Animal Welfare Council's recommendation of setting a review date of 2015. We will assess the output of this work, with a view to banning routine beak trimming in 2016. We are committed to working with the Beak Trimming Action Group to find solutions to this very complex issue and to establish an action plan, which will include the following key milestones leading up to a full review of beak trimming policy in 2015:

November 2010-Industry to be asked to carry out study tours to those European countries, such as Austria, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Switzerland where beak trimming is not carried out.

January 2011-The Beak Trimming Action Group (comprising key representatives from industry, welfare groups, scientific and veterinary professions) will be reconvened and I will attend the first meeting which will establish an action plan to develop a strategy to manage birds without the need to beak trim.

Spring 2011-Industry to feedback the experience of other countries to a meeting of the Beak Trimming Action Group.

Summer 2011-Beak Trimming Action Group to begin to consider the outputs of a three year intervention study by Bristol university, funded by the Tubney trust, on strategies to reduce the need for beak trimming with a view to ending the practice by 2016.

1 January 2012-the EU-wide ban on the keeping of laying hens in conventional cages comes into force. As the impact of feather pecking is greatest in systems of management which do not house birds in cages, the risk to the welfare of laying hens from injurious pecking is likely to increase after this time.

2012-2014-Hold regular meetings of the Beak Trimming Action Group to gather data from producers on their experiences in managing flocks over two cycles in alternative systems, which will be fed into the review.

2015-Review established to assess the achievements on the elimination of beak trimming to date. The review will advise whether a ban on routine beak trimming of laying hens will achieve the maximum welfare outcome, with a view to reinstating the ban in 2016.

2016-Provisional date for the ban on routine beak trimming of laying hens.