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Research projects

Here are some examples of projects for farm animals which the farm animals department has been involved in by funding/commissioning the project or as a member of the project steering group.

Farmed duck in open water source © Andrew Forsyth/RSPCA Photolibrary

Welfare of farmed ducks
We've been working with the University of Cambridge, duck producers and retailers to achieve a significant improvement to the welfare of farmed ducks through the provision of water facilities that allow the expression of key water-related behaviours. The results of this research will be reviewed, with a view to strengthening, where relevant, the RSPCA welfare standards for domestic/common ducks. This project was funded by The Tubney Charitable Trust.

Range research for laying hens
The number of birds using the range area in free-range egg production systems can sometimes be variable. We commissioned the University of Bristol to carry out a study to find practical ways to encourage and increase the hens' use of range, which in turn can improve bone strength and help to reduce the risk of feather pecking. Findings included the importance of vegetation cover close to the hen house, shelter from wind and access to the range from a young age. The results will help to further develop the RSPCA welfare standards for laying hens and provide more guidance to producers.

Beak trimming of laying hens
We continue to work hard to reach a point where the need to beak trim hens, to avoid the potential welfare implications of feather pecking and cannibalism, is avoided. To help evaluate welfare during beak trimming, we commissioned some research in partnership with the British Egg Industry Council. The research, carried out by the Scottish Agricultural College, concluded that a new infrared method of beak trimming appears to be preferable in welfare terms when compared with conventional methods. Advantages included reduced handling, reliability of the infrared treatment and the fact it is non-invasive. This method of beak trimming hens is now the only legally permitted method in the UK.

Alternatives to the farrowing crate for sows ('PigSAFE')
In 2008 a collaborative Defra-funded project involving animal welfare scientists from the Scottish Agricultural College and the University of Newcastle was begun to investigate possible alternatives to the farrowing crate, for indoor sows. Currently, approximately 60 per cent of UK sows farrow (give birth) in crates. Although these offer some protection for the piglets from crushing, they severely restrict the movement and behaviour of the sow, which can lead to frustration and stress. A member of our scientific team was on the steering group of this three-year project, the aim of which was to develop and test alternative, higher-welfare farrowing systems using an economic modelling approach.

‘FreeTails’ pig welfare project
In May 2010 the farm animals department received a grant from the Tubney Charitable Trust to gather and analyse information on current practices and initiatives in relation to indoor free farrowing and the avoidance of tail docking and tail biting. As part of this project the farm animals department devised a questionnaire to capture this information, which was sent to relevant researchers, producers, processors and retailers. A follow-up workshop was held in October 2010 with key stakeholders to discuss these issues further, including the current challenges to implementation of improved practices and how these might be overcome. A larger conference was subsequently held in January 2011, to enable knowledge transfer to and engagement with a wider audience, including government. As part of this project, researchers from the Scottish Agricultural College and Newcastle University were commissioned to investigate the economics of the marketplace for higher welfare pork products. We are currently exploring ways of taking this initiative forward, in collaboration with the pig industry and key stakeholders.

Development of on-farm Welfare Outcome Assessment
Further details are available on our welfare outcome assessment page.

Other RSPCA commissioned / funded research projects have included:

  • reducing tail biting in pigs
  • reducing aggression between pigs
  • avoidance of nose-ringing in outdoor sows
  • vision and the lighting requirements of ducks and turkeys
  • catching of end-of-lay hens: how current practices could be improved to the benefit of bird welfare
  • reducing feather pecking in laying hens
  • welfare aspects of chick handling at hatcheries
  • assessment and treatment of lameness in cattle
  • the robust cow project: investigated ways to reduce genetically-related health and welfare problems in dairy cows.

We use the results of scientific research projects in a variety of ways, including to help lobby/advise key stakeholders and develop detailed RSPCA welfare standards for farm animals.