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How to dispatch your poultry humanely

PUBLISHED: 17:58 25 April 2014 | UPDATED: 21:06 29 April 2014

The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) frequently receives enquiries from small producers, and others who keep small numbers of birds, about humane slaughter methods and equipment available for emergency slaughter.

The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA) frequently receives enquiries from small producers, and others who keep small numbers of birds, about humane slaughter methods and equipment available for emergency slaughter.

There are a number of pieces of equipment available for on-farm slaughter of poultry. However, the HSA would urge smallholders to be aware that not all meet the humane ideal.

To optimise welfare, the aim of the slaughter method should be to render the bird immediately unconscious, without fear or pain, and to quickly induce death before recovery of consciousness. Some common methods used for on-farm slaughter include electrical stunning, percussive stunning or dislocation of the neck. The normal method of killing is by exsanguination (bleeding out by cutting the major blood vessels of the neck), but this should only occur after stunning or neck pulling, as cutting the neck is likely to cause pain in a conscious bird.

Probably the most common method is 'neck pulling' (cervical dislocation). If carried out correctly, this method should cause extensive damage to the brainstem and render the bird instantaneously unconscious. Neck pulling may be acceptable for small numbers of birds if it is carried out by an experienced operator who is fully confident of performing the technique quickly and effectively.

With the great increase in interest in small scale production of poultry, there is a need for information and training for keepers so that they have the expertise to ensure that the technique is carried out correctly every time. Research (Gregory and Wotton 19901) has shown that there is not always immediate unconsciousness in poultry using this method, particularly when there has not been complete reparation of the neck and destruction of the brainstem. In particular, applying the procedure to larger birds is more difficult. Although not suitable for routine use, neck dislocation is acceptable under emergency conditions, or for very small numbers of birds, where better methods are not available, provided the person carrying it out is experienced in the technique.

Another method still (if rarely) used for dispatching poultry, is decapitation. The neck is severed close to the head using an instrument which should be designed specifically for that purpose, and should apply sufficient pressure to ensure rapid severance of the neck in the correct position and in one go. However, research has shown that in birds there may be some brain function (and possibly, therefore, some awareness) for up to 30 seconds after decapitation (Gregory and Wotton 19862). This method fails, therefore, to meet the humane ideal.

Another method, unacceptable to the HSA, is neck crushing using a set of pliers designed for the purpose. Such implements may be marketed as "humane dispatchers" but there is no scientific evidence that neck crushing produces immediate unconsciousness and, in view of the findings reported above on decapitation, there is some doubt that it does. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that neck crushing is less effective at disrupting brain function than manual neck dislocation (Gregory & Wotton 19901). This method is, therefore, not considered acceptable on welfare grounds.

Depending on the equipment, if sufficient force is applied, the percussive method can kill the bird outright. The cartridge-powered Cash Poultry Killer is a mechanical device specifically developed to produce a concussive blow and cause the death of the bird. Used correctly, this is a reliable and humane method and is more effective at disrupting brain function than either neck dislocation or neck crushing. Under current legislation, it must be followed by neck cutting or neck dislocation if used for 'commercial' slaughter (the meat is to be sold) or non- emergency culling. Percussive stunning without such specialised equipment is not recommended for routine use as it is not easy to ensure an effective manual blow to the skull. If not applied accurately and with sufficient force, it will cause extreme distress and suffering.

Hand-held electrical stunning is a common method used for commercial on-farm slaughter of poultry. When applied correctly the stun will render the bird immediately unconscious, but it must be immediately followed by a killing method such as bleeding to ensure the bird dies through loss of blood before it recovers from the stun. Hand-held electrical stunning has many advantages for the slaughter of poultry on-farm for commercial purposes. However, while the operating cost of this method is low, like the cartridge-powered device outlined above, the initial cost of the equipment may deter some small producers. Because of the need for an electricity supply, this method may not be appropriate for all smallholders.
The HSA recommends the use of either of the latter two methods by smallholders for the routine killing or slaughter of poultry. However, given there is a significant initial cost for both these methods, there is need for further research into the possibility of developing a low-tech, low-cost and high-welfare system for dispatching small numbers of poultry.

Legal requirements, including the necessity for a poultry slaughter licence, vary depending on the reasons for slaughter, eg whether it is emergency slaughter, commercial slaughter (where the meat is for sale) or slaughter for own consumption. Whatever method and equipment is chosen the user should ensure they have the appropriate skills and training.

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