A ban on beak trimming of hens, which was originally foreseen in 2011 and subsequently put back to 2016, has been postponed again following expert advice that a ban would pose too high a risk to hen welfare.

Since 2010, the use of a hot blade to routinely beak trim laying hens has been banned in the UK, farming minister, George Eustice, told the House of Commons in London in reply to a written question recently. In order to prevent injurious feather pecking, use of infra-red technology only is permitted on day-old chicks.

The government established the Beak Trimming Action Group (BTAG) - comprising representatives from industry, welfare groups, retailers, the agriculture ministry (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. Having reviewed all the available evidence, BTAG recently submitted its recommendations.

The minister reported that he has accepted all of the group’s recommendations. BTAG 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.

BTAG identified improved management techniques that could reduce feather pecking and the Government expects to see these techniques introduced across the laying hen sector, the minister added.

“The NFU has always said that January 2016 would have been too early to introduce a ban on beak trimming,” said National Farmers Union chief poultry adviser, Gary Ford. “We believe that a continuation is in the best welfare interests of laying hens so we are pleased that the Minister has listened to ours and the industry’s concerns.

“The NFU supports and is actively involved in ongoing industry work to better understand what the trigger points are that cause injurious feather pecking. The industry will continue its work with welfare groups, such as RSPCA and CIWF, and Defra in exploring ways in which we can work towards an industry that does not need to rely on beak trimming, but where bird welfare is not compromised,” Ford added.

Animal welfare campaigning organizations, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) have not commented publically on the Minister’s decision.