We are delighted to announce that our own Professor Christine Nicol, presented the prestigious Gordon Memorial Trust Lecture at this year’s WPSA conference on the 13th of April, Christine enthralled attendees with her lecture titled – ‘Whither hen welfare?’
‘The Robert Fraser Gordon Memorial Trust was established in 1982, the year I started my PhD. I would never have imagined then that I would one day receive the honour of being a Memorial Lecturer. At the first poultry science conference I attended, another delegate, learning that my PhD was on the subject of hen welfare, asked me rather cuttingly what I was going to do ‘when I grew up’. Forty years on, I will leave it to the audience to decide whether it was worth me persisting! I am truly honoured to have the opportunity to share some of my thoughts and reflections on a long career, I hope to inspire rather than discourage the next generation, and I thank the Trustees with all my heart.’Professor Christine Nicol
Concern for hen welfare is predicted on the belief that these birds are feeling, thinking, perceptive animals. Christine challenged delegates to reflect on whether the current evidence justifies this belief by examining what is known about different cognitive and emotional capacities in hens, while suggesting where evidence is lacking and venturing an opinion on hen sentience.
She also touched upon the subject of the rapidly changing landscape in which hens are kept in the UK and globally, and how although this resolves some welfare concerns, it is not full addressing others. Although there is a silver lining, as the rapid rise in welfare science around the world has produced more data than ever before, permitting informative meta-analyses and suggesting rational targets for welfare improvement.
The latter part of Christine’s lecture was focused on the mechanisms by which change may be achieved – whether by legal enforcement, voluntary assurance, farmer incentives or market forces – and highlight why such mechanisms fail. A focus on the housing management of laying hens can result in a relative neglect of the welfare of parent birds, chicks and pullets, and insufficient attention to the ole of breeding practices in producing robust and resilient animals. Is there a sweet-spot where trade-offs between hen welfare, productivity and sustainability can be balanced, and what does this look like? Christine finshed by considering whether and how we will know when we have got it right. In the absence of obvious physical health problems, do we really have the tools needed to measure the welfare of laying hens? Indeed, is there any such unitary concept?
Professor Christine Nicol is an award-winning animal scientist, who as well as her role at the Royal Veterinary College, has held honorary appointments at the University of Oxford and the University of Lincoln. Her accolades include the Prince Laurent Foundation prize for work equine welfare, the International Society for Applied Ethology 50th Anniversary Wood-Gush memorial award and the British Veterinary Association (BVA) 50th Woolridge Memorial Medal and she was also recently elected as an Honorary Fellow of the International Society for Applied Ethology. Christine continues to work on both fundamental and applied questions relevant to poultry production, as well as new projects on African elephants and wild cetaceans. She has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers, as well as a book on the Behaviour al Biology of Chickens (2015, CABI)
The Robert Fraser Gordon Memorial Trust was established in 1982 in remembrance of Dr Robert Fraser Gordon, who throughout his career gave unstintingly of himself to the poultry industry and the veterinary profession, both at home and abroad. The Trust’s primary role is to select each year a person who has made distinguished contributions to a branch of poultry science.