The Lakes Free Range Egg Company is pleased to be able to share this article from the Woodland Trust that appeared in Practical Poultry magazine.  As a Woodland Trust Ambassador, it’s great to get out the message that tree planting on hen ranges is very beneficial for hens.  Read on…….

Today’s consumers increasingly expect that egg production will meet high standards of animal welfare, will result in a safe and nutritious product and respect the natural environment.  This trend is reflected in the UK market, where in 2016 UK produced almost 10.5 billion eggs of which 50% were from free range chickens.  Contemporary farming is discovering new ways to prioritise animal welfare and the quality of their products and to meet the demand for free range, natural foods. Tree planting on hen ranges is one such solution.

The Woodland Trust is a passionate exponent of planting trees on ranges, explaining that integrating woodland encourages ranging and other natural behaviours in flocks – they are after all descendants of jungle fowl.  This leads to improvements in animal health and welfare, as well as improvements in production – both in the quantity and quality of eggs.  As free range woodland eggs command a premium price, this practice can lead to a boost in the farmer’s income.  The Farm Animal Welfare Council explains five simple ways to give chickens the freedom they need to live and produce naturally:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain and injury
  • Freedom to express normal behaviour
  • Freedom from fear and distress

The trust’s senior farming adviser Helen Cheshire explains: “Planting trees on poultry farms will improve animal welfare, replicating some of the conditions that encourage natural behaviours such as foraging, scratching and dust bathing. Well-designed tree planting encourages better use of the range by providing cover, shelter, and shade and to be effective should be close to the housing as hens are reluctant to cross open ground.”

Research suggests that providing tree cover can lead to a reduction in Injurious Feather Pecking (IFP) – a serious economic and welfare concern for free range birds.

IFP results in feather loss and effectively leads to chickens needing more feed to maintain body temperature. This can be categorised by severity into light feather pecking, severe feather pecking and cannibalistic feather pecking. Severe cases can lead to bald chickens, blood loss and death.  The benefits of tree cover in reducing IFP are likely to result from the expression of normal behaviour patterns. Defra explains that this is strongly tied to bird temperament. Such behaviour can be avoided if hens are not only free to roam, but able to interact and explore their environment. Hens will benefit from tree cover and will express natural behaviour as they can hide from predators and stay clear of stressful situations therefore increasing both free-range egg quantity and quality.

Trees in free range poultry systems lead to better ranging, reduced stress and increased shade.  This combination has a positive impact on egg quality.  Stress and prolonged exposure to sunlight can increase the number of pale eggs which then leads to downgrades and loss in value. Hens release a hormone in response to stressful situations which can result in reduced shell pigmentation.  Production of pale eggs may also be as a result of high UV light levels.

It is vital to offer the flock shaded areas that are scattered throughout the range, not just limited to a certain area as this will encourage the hens to range and prevent crowding and the build-up of faeces around pop holes (lowering the risk of parasite infection). Studies support that poultry ranges should ideally have 20% tree cover with a minimum of 5% required to meet RSPCA Freedom Foods standards..

Agricultural activity including poultry is a major source of ammonia emissions in the UK.   When ammonia gas is released into the atmosphere is has a fertilising effect on the land which damages sensitive habitats such as ancient woodland and heathland.   Emissions are often associated with odour and dust, which can impact on the health of livestock and agricultural workers.   Creating tree belts downwind from the emission sources can intercept ammonia emissions and dust and odours improving the quality of air, water and overall ventilation.

Organisations such as the Woodland Trust help poultry farmers plant trees to reduce rainwater run-off from poultry farms and reduce the potential for contamination of water courses as they intercept nutrients and faecal organisms which can enter water courses.   By increasing the infiltration rates of the soil and the roughness of the land trees can help reduce the impacts of flooding.

Planting native tree species on a poultry range has great benefits for wildlife.  They provide a woodland edge type habitat, connectivity with other habitats and buffer other habitats from the negative impacts of ammonia.

David Brass, a Woodland Trust ambassador and free range egg farmer, has been producing free range eggs for over 20 years at his family farm in Penrith. David, working with the Trust, has planted native trees and seen real advances in his hens’ behaviour and production. Wild cherry, ash, oak and holly have sheltered his farm from predators and hens have displayed lower stress levels.

David said:“There have been no disadvantages to planting trees. For us, it’s all an upside. We get better production, better mortality, better egg quality, less seconds, less disease and it makes you feel nice too.  The cost of planting is recuperated ten times over in the first couple of years. As well as financial benefits, trees improve the overall quality of my farmland, increase wildlife habitats and provide wood fuel for the biomass boiler that heats our farm. Trees are not just nice to have; they are business assets that lead to increased production and income.”

David’s company, The Lakes Free Range Egg Company, has planted 40,000 trees, which has created over 15 hectares of woodland.  It is now one of the largest free range packing businesses in UK and is a major supplier to national supermarkets.

From capturing dust and pollution to providing shelter, trees are a necessity for poultry farms to maintain the health and wellbeing of hens and the quality of their produce. The UK is making advancements in its care and efficiency towards farming techniques. Planting trees can show well-being compliance from farmers as they make such improvements to their land with animal welfare as a main priority.

To find out more about the benefits of tree planting on poultry farming visit the Woodland Trust web page David Brass with free range hens tree planting a necessity

To hear more from David Brass, visit the You Tube page


Picture credits: Phil Formby/Woodland Trust