Farming Minister George Eustice has rejected calls for a ban on beak trimming in laying hens in England, after being advised it could have negative welfare consequences.
Mr Eustice has been weighing up the pros and cons of a ban on the practice for some time and has faced strong calls from the industry to allow it to continue.
His decision was confirmed in an answer to a written parliamentary question today. It followed the publication of a report on the issue by the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG), which had been established to advise Ministers on the decision.
Mr Eustice said he had accepted all the group’s recommendations, including the headline one not to impose ban on beak trimming.
He said: "The Group advised that the risks of introducing a ban on infra-red beak trimming are too great.
"It could result in outbreaks of severe feather pecking and having to employ emergency beak trimming using the hot blade method, which is a far worse outcome from an animal welfare perspective.
"However, the BTAG report also identified improved management techniques that could reduce feather pecking. The Government expects to see these techniques introduced across the laying hen sector."
Mr Eustice pointed out that since 2010, the use of a hot blade to routinely beak trim laying hens has been banned in the UK.
"In order to prevent injurious feather pecking, use of infra-red technology only is permitted on day old chicks," he said.
The Government established the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG), comprising representatives from industry, welfare groups, retailers, Defra, scientific and veterinary professions to look at ways birds might be managed so that even infra-red beak trimming would no longer be necessary.
In its report the group said its members have worked hard over the last four years to study the issue of injurious pecking in both rearing and laying flocks.
Progress has been made in a number of areas but concluded:
"Despite this considerable progress, BTAG concludes that an imminent ban on beak trimming could result in significant welfare problems through outbreaks of feather pecking and cannibalism.
"Once injurious pecking establishes itself in a flock, it can be difficult to resolve, leading to chronic and sometimes irreversible injury and damage."
It cited the findings of a study on large pilot flocks by the University of Bristol study, which showed the consequences of injurious pecking in intact-beak flocks was ’far more serious in terms of direct skin and tissue damage, subsequent chronic infection and reduced bird welfare’.
"It can also result in a significant economic loss to the producer.
"In one of these large flocks, emergency beak trimming using the hot blade method was necessary to help control a severe outbreak of injurious pecking, which is stressful for the birds and for everyone involved.
"Evidence to date indicates that unlike infra-red beak trimming, hot blading causes chronic pain and therefore bird welfare may be severely compromised."
Despite ruling against a ban on beak trimming, the action group outlined progress that has been made on the issue: