Smothering in UK free-range flocks. Part 1: incidence, location, timing and management

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Smothering in poultry is an economic and welfare-related concern. This study presents the first results from a questionnaire addressing the incidence, location, timing and management of smothering of free-range farm managers from two commercial egg companies (representing 35 per cent of the UK free-range egg supply). Overall, nearly 60 per cent of farm mangers experienced smothering in their last flock, with an average of 25.5 birds lost per incidence, although per cent mortality due to smothering was low (x[Combining Macron]=1.6 per cent). The majority of farm managers also reported that over 50 per cent of all their flocks placed had been affected by smothering. The location and timing of smothering (excluding smothering in nest boxes) tended to be unpredictable and varied between farms. Blocking off corners/nest boxes and walking birds more frequently were identified as popular smothering reduction measures, although there was a wide variety of reduction measures reported overall. The motivation to implement reduction measures was related to a farm manager's previous experience of smothering. To our knowledge, this is the first study to provide a representative industry estimate on the incidence, location, timing and management of smothering. The results suggest that smothering is a common problem, unpredictable between flocks with no clear, effective reduction strategies. A follow-up study will investigate the correlations among smothering, disease and other welfare problems and may shed further light on management solutions.

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