Research funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Animal Welfare Programme has come up with a small-scale camera and computer setup that may improve the welfare of broiler chickens, according to researchers.

The welfare of broiler chicken flocks is often assessed by examining the health of the birds' feet and legs at the point of slaughter. The alternative is to have teams of people go into poultry sheds and assess how well the birds are walking and moving around, eventually calculating a "gait score." With the new technology, a small box mounted on the wall in a chicken shed will contain a camera and computer that can use a technique called "optical flow" to monitor the shifting patterns of movement in the flock. If there are a lot of slow-moving birds, the overall pattern of movement is disrupted and the monitoring device detects that there may be a welfare issue such as illness or lameness.


"Waiting until the birds are slaughtered is obviously not an ideal way of monitoring animal welfare on farms and the gait score method is rather labor intensive and expensive for an industry that is already hard pressed by cheap imports,” said lead researcher Professor Marian Dawkins with the University of Oxford. “Our invention correlates well with the gait score method and is at least as sensitive at picking up the very early warning signs that something is wrong. It has the potential to become totally automated to raise an alarm when a problem is detected.”

Dawkins and her team are working to test the system further.