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Trees enhance flock health and wellbeing

Enhanced animal welfare is among the ‘public goods’ that could be funded under a post-Brexit agricultural policy, identified in the agriculture command paper which the Government is currently consulting on. There appears to be strong public support for this - in a 2018 poll, 82% of respondents supported using farm subsidies to improve animal welfare[1].

We have been working for a number of years to assess the impact of trees on the welfare of different farm animals.

Trees are a basic necessity for hen health and wellbeing

Chickens are a subspecies of the red jungle fowl, whose natural habitat is woody scrub. Planting trees on free range poultry farms encourages ranging and other natural behaviours, such as scratching and dust bathing. A well-designed tree planting scheme with 20% tree canopy will provide cover, shelter and shade. The trees draw the hens out of the barns, allowing them to hide from predators and stay clear of stressful situations. At the same time they provide a woodland edge habitat beneficial to a wide range of native wildlife and contribute to connectivity across the landscape, which has been shown to be vital to delivering a healthy natural environment.

Planting trees on free range poultry farms encourages ranging and other natural behaviours, such as scratching and dust bathing (Photo: Jonny Walton)
Planting trees on free range poultry farms encourages ranging and other natural behaviours, such as scratching and dust bathing (Photo: Jonny Walton)

Stress is a major issue in large commercial flocks and contributes to poor bird condition, injurious feather pecking (IFP) and low quality egg production. Research suggests that providing tree cover can lead to a reduction in IFP – a serious economic and welfare concern for free ranged birds. Loss of feathers due to IFP causes pain and discomfort and in severe cases, death. As well as enhancing hen health, the effect of trees in the reduction of stress and the provision of shade 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. Find out more from David Brass.

Under their woodland canopy, sheltered from predators and the weather David’s hens roam freely. They have good plumage, display lower stress levels and produce high numbers of top quality eggs (Photo: Jonny Walton)
Under their woodland canopy, sheltered from predators and the weather David’s hens roam freely. They have good plumage, display lower stress levels and produce high numbers of top quality eggs (Photo: Jonny Walton)

Safety and shelter for sheep

British sheep are hardy animals but even they can be affected by weather. The cold weather dubbed ‘beast from the east’ arrived just as lambing was getting underway for many flocks this spring, causing significant sheep and lamb deaths. Exposure to cold is one of the biggest causes of neonatal loss of lambs – around a third of lamb deaths are due to exposure and starvation. Tree belts will provide shelter (and shade) and studies have shown that in cold, wet and windy conditions, lamb losses can be reduced by 30% if good shelter is provided. Tree belts can also support natural behaviours in ewes, providing safe places for the mothers to separate from the flock during lambing. This increases the chance of a strong bond forming between the ewe and her lambs, better suckling and colostrum intake and reduced disease risk and greater resistance to cold.    

Ongoing research

We are also involved in research with Bangor University to gain further understanding of how trees and hedges can make sheep farms ‘weather smart’. Using an electric sheep, data is being collected to measure how much energy sheep need to survive and stay efficient in adverse weather conditions. This will help design tree shelter that will give the maximum benefit to the flock’s wellbeing and performance, whilst providing habitat connectivity across the farmed landscape.

We're involved in research using an electric sheep to assess the benefits of trees to livestock (Photo: WTML)
We're involved in research using an electric sheep to assess the benefits of trees to livestock (Photo: WTML)

Reduced disease

The availability of trees and hedges can also help improve general health and welfare of the flock through improved nutrition, reduced stress and improved immune function. The findings from the Pontbren farms revealed how effective tree belts can be in improving water infiltration rates into the soil. This will help reduce the incidence of prevalent and potentially fatal sheep diseases such as liver fluke and lameness.

Trees have a key role in food production

Today’s consumers expect food production to meet high standards of animal welfare as well as delivering a safe and nutritious product via systems that respect the natural environment. Farmers such as David Brass have proven that trees offer a natural solution to help achieve this. 

We are responding to the Government’s command paper consultation by calling for trees to be part of the solution in meeting higher animal welfare as well as environmental standards.

From a single sapling to a whole woodland

We can help you plant trees

[1] RSPCA/YouGov poll carried out between 4th - 5th March 2018. A weighted and representative sample of 1,643 GB adults (aged 18+).