There are many types of bird-to-bird pecking that hens perform, some types can cause severe injuries to the birds. Injurious pecking (including feather pecking) and cannibalism, once established in a flock, are very difficult to control. Beak trimming, where the tip of the beak is removed, is used to avoid or minimise injuries from hens pecking each other, sometimes to death (cannibalism). Beak trimming is sometimes referred to as “debeaking”; however, at no time is the entire beak removed. In any housing system there is a risk of a pecking or cannibalism outbreak. These outbreaks can involve a large number of birds and can be very difficult to control. Feather pecking and cannibalism are related to a number of factors including breed, nutrition, flock management, and the bird’s experience at rearing.
The RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme standards for layer hens only allow a once-off beak trim at the hatchery, by a competent operator using appropriate equipment (usually done with an infrared beam), and is limited to removal of the tip of the beak. To learn more about the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme visit our website.
While there are welfare risks of not allowing beak-trimming, there are a number of management strategies that may help to control feather pecking in a flock. Farmers should not rely on beak trimming to control feather pecking, but first implement all management and environmental provisions which minimise the risk of feather pecking. These include good management and stockpersonship (some information on management is available here), adequate nutrition and high fibre diets, good quality litter, no sudden changes in diet or environment, minimising stress and fear, and the matching the rearing and laying environments. In addition, feather pecking is heritable, and hens may be bred specifically for barn and free-range production and are less prone to feather pecking.
For more information, RSPCA Australia’s scientific report on layer hens may be accessed here: https://www.rspca.org.au/layer-hen-welfare