A number of British poultry vets are writing to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson to urge him to abandon a proposed ban on the use of beak trimming in 2016.Eight active vets who are all members of the British Veterinary Poultry Association (BVPA) - including the association's president, Keith Warner - are writing to the Environment Secretary individually to tell him that going ahead with the ban at this time would be bad for animal welfare. They want the ban put off until it can be shown that commercial laying flocks can be managed without the risk of injurious pecking.The ban was originally due to come into force at the beginning of 2011 but was put off on the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) because of the council's concerns about feather pecking and cannibalism, although the Government did insist that the industry use only infrared beak trimming in future. Keith Warner told the Ranger that infrared beak trimming was a big improvement over hot blade treatment and there was no suggestion that it caused a bird long term pain. He said that its impact on bird welfare was certainly less than the potential impact of injurious pecking, which is recognised as the biggest risk amongst commercial layers whose beaks are left intact.
Trials are currently being run by scientists at the University of Bristol to show how birds can be successfully managed without beak trimming, although it was revealed shortly before Christmas that there had been a severe outbreak of pecking in one flock involved in the trial. The flock - a 16,000-bird free range unit in East Anglia suffered mortality of 20 per cent and a vet had to be called in to carry out emergency beak trimming on the remaining birds. The Ranger was told that problems had arisen in more than one flock - another producer in Scotland had reportedly had difficulties, we were told, although Christine Nicol, the Bristol University professor in charge of the trials, insisted that the pecking was confined to just one flock.The unit in East Anglia is one of three that has been underwritten by the British Egg Industry Council (BEIC) to encourage larger units to volunteer for the trials. BEIC chief executive Mark Williams revealed at an egg producers' meeting near York in January that the outbreak had cost tens of thousands of pounds in compensation. He said it would be "a welfare disaster" for the egg industry if the ban went ahead in 2016.
The year 2016 was the date mooted by the Government when it agreed to defer the introduction of the ban in 2011. It said that the position would be reviewed in 2015 with the intention that the ban should be introduced a year later. The 2015 review will be carried out by the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG), a body comprised of representatives from industry, welfare groups, veterinarians, academics and Government.Keith Warner, who is with Minster Vets, said that the eight vets writing to the Environment Secretary were members of a committee of the BVPA that organised meetings and discussed issues affecting the industry. Beak trimming was something that was the subject of debate at the moment and the eight vets had decided that they would write to Owen Paterson individually to give their own views."Everyone will write their own letters, so they will make their own points. In my letter I have said that the welfare impact of infrared beak trimming is less than injurious pecking. If a ban is implemented in 2016 it will worsen welfare."At a meeting of the Yorkshire Egg Producers' Discussion Group near York in January Mark Williams said that the egg industry had always had reservations about the beak trimming trials being carried out by the University of Bristol. "We said all along that Defra would not pay Bristol enough money to have control flocks. If you do a scientific project you have a trial flock and you have a control flock and you repeat it over a number of flocks. We have been highly critical of all this."He said no compensation was being provided by Defra for producers who volunteered to take part in the trial and who suffered losses. "That's why we eventually agreed to step in and financially underwrite three 16,000 free range flocks. We insisted that producers who took part had matched controls. Unfortunately one has had a disaster and it has cost us a fortune," he said. "If the producer was carrying that it would be the end of it, bankruptcy. But we have to do it. We have to show that we are serious about welfare and that we are prepared to go through the science and the trials. But we do not believe it should come in until such time as a bird can be bred that doesn't need beak trimming without it resorting to injurious pecking and cannibalism."Mark said another problem that could arise if the ban went ahead in 2016 was the possibility that beak trimming could be banned in England but not in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. "They would get a de facto ban anyway because all the pullet hatcheries are in England." But he said, "What's to stop a producer going to France, where they still allow hot blading, and buying their day-old chicks from there." He said the current Government had said it wanted to grow the rural economy and exports but the possibility of producers buying chicks from elsewhere could have a big impact on British hatcheries. "It's madness to shoot your own industry in the foot," he said.All industry bodies with an interest in the beak trimming ban, including the BEIC, the British Free Range Egg Producers' Association and the NFU, have been lobbying politicians to prevent the ban going ahead in 2016. Mark Williams said at the York meeting that a General Election would take place in 2015 - the year before it was due to come into force. The result of that election could determine whether or not the ban was introduced.