Bone-crunching hits tackled by experts – at chicken farm
When England's rugby stars take on Wales in Cardiff this afternoon there will be some massive hits as the players establish the Six Nations pecking order.
The high-speed collisions will be softened – marginally – by the protective clothing the players wear to cope with the demands of the modern game.
And now a similar theory is behind a research project to prevent broken bones in the seemingly less ferocious world of free-range chickens.
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Hens are to don vests to help Bristol University scientists understand why so many free range hens break bones.
The issue is a major welfare and economic problem with up to 90 per cent of hens in some free range systems suffering breaks.
A new three-year research programme to try to reduce the problem has just been awarded a grant of £532,000, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and supported by Noble Foods, the egg industry's largest producer.
The project is led by Dr John Tarlton and Dr Michael Toscano from the University of Bristol's school of veterinary sciences and Dr Krasimira Tsaneva-Atanasova in the university's department of engineering mathematics.
The 2012 EU ban on battery cage systems means that as many as 30 million UK hens will now be housed in alternative systems, mostly free range. A possible 24 million hens may therefore suffer breaks each year, which the industry and government say is unsustainable.
Noble Foods, a longstanding partner in the group's efforts to improve welfare of laying hens, will play a central role in the study by providing open and free access to their varied housing systems across the country.
The breast bone is the most likely to be broken, with collisions thought to be the main cause. In the short term these breaks are painful and will reduce the hen's productivit. The difficulty in observing exactly what is going on at the moment of fracture has led to the decision to kit some birds out in specially designed vests capable of measuring the kinetic energies, and frequencies of impacts.
The study will first replicate breaks on dead birds using defined fractures in the laboratory. The findings will be mathematically modelled and the model used to predict the likelihood of fractures occurring in a bird or flock.
Dr Tarlton said: "Despite having the opportunity to range freely many hens choose to stay inside the house. As well as enabling us to improve the designs of housing systems, the study will help to identify other solutions such as selective breeding of hens with stronger bones," he said.