GFA Guidance on Using
Raised Laying Units for Gamebirds
1. Raised laying units have been used for partridge breeding pairs for 50 years and account for nearly all the partridge eggs produced on game farms, whether in the UK and overseas.
2. Raised units for pheasant harems (one cock and several hens) are a more recent innovation but they are already in widespread use on the continent and also now on many game farms in the UK.
3. Raised units produce cleaner eggs - the droppings falling away through a mesh floor - which significantly reduces the disease risk to the chicks. They also keep the laying birds in cleaner condition, especially in bad weather. Because there is only one cock bird in each unit, they prevent cock birds from fighting for the hens and there are also some economic advantages, although these are often over-stated.
4. Potential downsides are that raised units are necessarily quite small – you cannot raise an entire traditional grass laying field off the ground – and close confinement of the birds can lead to severe feather-pecking if the environment and the management are not right.
5. The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) investigated the use of raised laying units for gamebirds in the UK in 2008, concluding that ‘barren’ cages should not be used and that all raised units for game species should be enriched such that the birds needs are always met.
6. In 2010, following public consultation and Parliamentary scrutiny, the Governments in England, Scotland and Wales each incorporated FAWC’s advice into their new codes of practice for gamebird rearing, issued under their respective Animal Welfare Acts 2006. These codes are applicable to everyone who rears game (not just game farmers) and are effective from January 2011. Anyone not following the code relevant to their area may be at risk of prosecution. On raised units the codes state that:
Barren raised cages for breeding pheasants and small barren cages for breeding partridges should not be used. All laying systems used for the housing of birds should be designed and managed to ensure the welfare of the birds. Any system should be appropriately enriched.
Gamebird keepers should explore possible methods of enrichment with their veterinary surgeon or other suitable adviser. Laying birds should be provided with nest areas sufficient for the number of birds housed.
7. This document on the use of raised laying units has been produced by the Game Farmers’ Association, with the assistance of independent vets, to help any game rearer using raised laying units, or considering their use, to do so properly. It is not a complete ‘how to do it’ manual nor a set of ‘standards’. There is no one ‘right way’ to do the job and the ability to be flexible within systems and management is important. Indeed, the Government codes encourage the exploration of new ideas. Nor should this guide be seen as an explanation of what the Government codes require in a legal sense – that can ultimately only be a matter for interpretation by the courts. But we hope this document will encourage everyone involved with raised laying units to think the issues through carefully and to get their unit design and management right. In this way we hope our guidance will help make a major contribution towards ensuring good bird welfare.
8. Experience has shown that where there have been welfare problems with raised laying units in the past, these have often resulted from inadequate planning or lack of knowledge. Anyone contemplating using raised units must undertake extensive research to ensure that early mistakes are not made. Initial trials with a small number of birds are strongly recommended.
9. The law and the Government gamebird codes require that birds are never ill-treated and that their welfare needs (based on the ‘five freedoms’) are always met. Those responsible for animals must, by law, have access to the code relevant to their location and must have received instruction and guidance on it. The code paragraphs quoted above relate specifically to raised laying units but there are many other sections in the codes that have a bearing on the correct design and management of every type of egg production system. They must all be followed to ensure good bird welfare and avoid the risk of prosecution.
10. Whilst welfare considerations must always come first, the public is sensitive to the confinement of livestock and decisions about the location of units, their appearance and management should take this into account. There is no point in courting misunderstandings.
11. As a general principle, the welfare of birds should be judged by health and behavioural outcomes rather than by physical inputs. What really matters is the condition and well-being of the birds not the precise nature of their housing. It is easy to get obsessed with providing perches, pecking devices, nest areas and other ‘furniture’ inside the units and indeed the ‘enrichment’ provision of the codes may require this. But make sure that what you are using by way of additional furniture really works to enrich the lives of the birds. Enrichment is a welfare issue, not a box-ticking exercise.
12. Good stockmen instinctively know when their birds are fit and behaving normally. It is important that people with this ability are in daily charge of the birds as they will be in the best position to judge whether unit design and management are really working in welfare terms. Much can be learnt from the birds’ feather condition, stance and demeanour. Well-feathered, fit, alert birds which seem well-adapted to their surroundings and are laying fertile eggs prolifically should be what you see if the system is right. There should be nothing you should be ashamed of showing to a vet, a journalist or a politician.
13. All game rearers should have a flock health plan worked up with their veterinary surgeons in advance and regularly reviewed in the light of results. The more intensive the system used, the better the management and surveillance must be. Some of the larger game farms using raised units now have a routine visit by a vet at least once a week.
14. Every visitor, however professional or well-meaning, is a potential biosecurity hazard and this risk should be managed by good practice and record keeping. Protective clothing and disinfection are advised. Uninvited visitors should be deterred by adequate security.
15. Good record keeping is required by the codes but the key thing is to learn from and act on the records kept. For example, experienced users of raised units know that something may be going wrong the moment egg production dips below expected norms. They will be out immediately looking to locate and correct the problem and planning ahead to avoid it happening again in future. Some vets are now able to monitor computerised game farm records on-line, reducing the need for and cost of actual visits. Good records can also be a defence against unjustified accusations of bad management.
16. Unit design must meet the welfare needs of the birds and the codes specify the use of safe and appropriate materials and the need for sufficient space, sufficient shelter, some dry litter and ‘nest areas sufficient for the number of birds housed’. Anyone not having these things is at risk of prosecution and the codes also require perches as appropriate to species.
17. The GFA believes that good nest areas are a particularly important aspect of enrichment as they provide some privacy for the hens and a means of escape should the cock or other hens become aggressive. If well - designed, they can also provide surfaces for claw shortening and normal pecking behaviour. Nest boxes incorporating sand will enable dust-bathing and, where grit of the correct size is included, will meet another specific requirement of the code. If the nest box is darker than the rest of the unit, egg pecking and the risk of vent-pecking will be significantly reduced. It is important that the design of any nest box does not prevent the birds from being checked properly or from being easily caught should there be a need to remove them from the unit.
18. Some units are designed so that eggs roll away once laid. This can make egg collection easier and also means the eggs are not vulnerable to being pecked at or soiled by the birds. In roll-away systems, the floor slope must not be too steep and the design of any nesting boxes, perches and the choice of flooring materials will have to take account of the need for eggs to roll out without getting caught up.
19. The codes require ‘appropriate flooring’ and experience has shown that a well chosen grade of weldmesh will allow droppings to fall away without damaging the birds’ feet in any way. Some users like to have a different type of flooring in the nest area, perhaps used in conjunction with some ‘dry litter’ as required by the code. Astroturf of a type designed for the poultry industry can work but must be kept dry. If it is in an area of the unit exposed to rain, the droppings will clog and it will become a disease hazard.
20. Material for the unit tops needs to have some give in it, so it is safe for the birds’, and it must not allow heads to pass through or they may become caught. Units need to be high enough to allow the birds to perch (in the case of pheasants), stretch their wings, crow and of course mate but if they are too high the risk of damage to heads when they flutter up can increase. A proportion of the roof needs to be weather proof to provide the ‘sufficient shelter for all birds’ required by the code. This will have the added benefit that dry birds are less easily damaged as a result of feather-pecking.
21. Stocking densities need very careful thought. Partridges will invariably be paired and as long as the pair has sufficient space, providing more area seems to have little if any welfare benefit and may actually reduce productivity. For pheasants, one cock to six hens in a standard, French-produced, raised pheasant unit has worked well. With fewer hens than this there is a risk of over-treading by the cock, whilst eight hens or more may risk overcrowding in these particular units and contribute to reduced egg production. Larger units might of course allow for more hens to be included.
22. When excessive problems with feather-pecking have occurred among pheasants in the past, they have usually been associated with high stocking densities. The second half of the breeding season in particular is the time when this can occur. Stocking densities should be chosen to take account of this and to reduce the risk of problems arising.
23. Most partridge egg producers retain their laying birds for two years, as second-year production is normally higher. The birds settle well once paired and there is no evidence of a welfare problem keeping them on as long as the raised units are well designed and managed. Experience has shown that removing partridges from their units to flock pens for the winter and then re-pairing for breeding will result in cock on cock aggression, more disease, increased re-pairing problems and far greater stress than simply leaving them in their original units.
24. Pheasant harems, being more volatile social structures in nature, should only be held in raised units for one season. Kept longer, the birds’ condition can fall off and second year pheasant egg production tends to be lower anyway so commercially there is little point in holding them back.
25. Most operators no longer move cock pheasants from pen to pen routinely, not least as it can unsettle the birds without particular benefit. Keeping a close eye on the birds and on egg fertility will identify any non-performing cocks, which can then be replaced individually.
26. The choice of species and strain when using raised units needs careful thought. Varieties known to be particularly aggressive are best avoided. With pheasants, look for the harder feathered American varieties rather than soft feathered ring-necks.
27. There seems to be no welfare or behavioural difference arising from whether birds intended for raised units have come from reared stock or from being caught up in the wild. Birds should always be introduced to raised laying units during fine weather. Control of ectoparasites such as lice is important at this time but as a general principle avoid over-handling birds or making multiple changes to their environmental at the same time.
28. With partridges, there are always a few rejections when birds are paired. If the unit has a properly designed nest area, a threatened hen will be able to escape an aggressive cock. The pair should be separated immediately the rejection is detected. Particularly aggressive cocks are probably best culled.
29. Diet needs careful consideration and in time it may be that specialist diets for birds kept off grass may emerge. Feeds incorporating calcium and other minerals are already available and help to meet the requirement in the code to provide a nutritionally balanced diet.
30. Water supply will normally be from nipples running off a pipe suspended above the units. There should be at least two nipples for each unit to allow for accidental blockages. If the pressure is too high, the birds’ chest plumage may get sprayed as they drink and the wet feathers are then more vulnerable to damage. Provision should be made for ensuring a continuing water supply in periods of hard frost.
31. Lighting the birds artificially to bring them into lay earlier is common practice but must be done with real care. Increasing ‘day length’ too suddenly or too early can put birds off laying altogether – just a few minutes each day is advised. Extending the laying period too long by using lights may exacerbate problems arising from aggression or fatigue and should be avoided. Lighting in the mornings only, rather than at both ends of the day, averts the need for gradual dimming as the birds can be left to the natural onset of darkness as evening falls.
32. Feather pecking is a problem in nearly all gamebird laying systems and can be greater in smaller units, in which its avoidance needs particular thought. Pheasants in raised laying units will invariably retain their condition better where an appropriate anti-pecking device is fitted on the birds’ bills but remember what the codes say on such devices: operators should pursue the ideal of managing without them and where they are used, they need to be justified in the flock health plan and their use regularly reviewed. The code also says that masks or shrouds should not generally be used. Many pheasant egg producers find they get good results with the less obtrusive Bumpa bits, fitted to each hen. Partridges rarely seem to need bits of any kind.
- Whenever birds mate, there is some danger of the hen birds’ backs being damaged by excessive treading. Good escape cover in a grass laying pen is used to reduce this risk and in a raised laying unit a well-designed nest area can also provide this function. Some operators have tried using fabric saddles on the hens’ backs and report that the welfare results have been good. As an artificial management device, however, the use of saddles is discouraged by the code. Their use would need to be justified on a case by case basis and included in the flock health plan, ideally with veterinary input and review.
34. The codes require thorough checking of all laying birds at least twice daily, something which will be aided if the stockmen involved are accommodated close to the raised units. Some game farms have found that having two people quietly walking the units, one down either side at the same time, makes inspection easier and more thorough. It also familiarises the birds with humans and reduces any tendency to panic when other people are around. Those making the checks must know what to look for and have had adequate experience and training. They must act appropriately to what they find. A record of each inspection, recording the time it was made, anything untoward found and the actions taken as a result, is a useful management tool and would help as a defence against any allegation of neglect.
35. Many users keep their raised laying units under nets to prevent access by wild birds, which are a significant disease hazard. Without netting, corvids and starlings can also steal food or take eggs, depending somewhat on the precise design of the system.
36. Temperatures in metal units have been known to rise to high levels in locations such as the south of France, where cooling sprinkler systems are sometimes fitted. Such problems are unlikely in the UK but should be considered as part of the overall contingency planning which the codes require. Readiness for all eventualities, whether related to the weather, to disease or to the unexpected failure of a supply chain, is all part of good game rearing.
37. When birds are to be moved on from raised units at the end of the breeding season they can most easily be caught with a soft hand-net. The units themselves should be cleaned between seasons but a well-designed and managed unit should not need to be cleaned when in use. Ease of cleaning needs to be taken into account when designing the units, whilst practices such as power-washing near to kept birds should certainly be avoided. Disposal of droppings needs to take account of the laws on nitrate pollution.
ASSESSING YOUR RESULTS
38. In general, raised units should produce more eggs per bird than ground-based systems. In pheasants, for example, a well-run ground-based system in the UK may produce 45 useable eggs per hen, whilst from properly managed raised units over 50 useable eggs might be expected. Anything less may indicate that all is not well with the system.
39. Mortality in breeding birds – wild or reared – is a fact of life, usually associated with the inevitable aggression of cock birds during the mating cycle and the natural hazards of egg laying for the hens. In ground-based pheasant laying systems mortality is typically around 10% across the whole laying period. That percentage should certainly be no higher in well-run raised units. Experienced operators often achieve mortality rates in single figures, as might be expected from a raised system designed for cleanliness.
40. Raised laying units have long been the method of choice for partridge egg production and there is increasing interest in their potential for pheasants. Such units can have several advantages, not least in terms of bird welfare, provided they are correctly designed and properly run. Each Government in the UK has recognised this and, through its game rearing code, given users the opportunity to show that such units can function properly and without detriment to the birds. Ministers have also made it clear, however, that failure to do so may well result in prosecution, with tighter regulation not far behind, and Defra has also commissioned scientific research on raised units to find out more.
The GFA stands for quality game rearing and constant improvement. This guidance has been prepared by industry experts and vets to help ensure that any raised laying units used in the UK are properly designed and managed. We hope that game egg producers and their veterinarians will find this guidance useful and we urge all involved with raised laying units to follow it and thereby to help maintain the good name that game rearing enjoys.
Copyright to The Game Farmers’ Association, 2010