ChickenStress: Tom Smulders about a new European research training network

Congratulations, Tom Smulders at Newcastle University and your eleven collaborators to the success in getting funding for the ChickenStress training network! These grants are so competitive that getting one is an enormous achievement in itself. And I think this is the first time ever there is one in animal welfare. Please tell us what this network is about!

The network aims to better understand the different factors that affect stress responsivity and stress resilience in laying hens. We go from the assumption that in the end, the stress resilience is based in the brains of the animals, but that the factors that determine this stress resilience are a combination of genetics, early-life experiences, and current (adult) environment. The network therefore aims to better understand how the stress response is regulated in the avian brain, but it also looks at all three factors that affect resilience. We don’t just want to understand what the effects of these different factors are, we also want to know what we can do to improve stress resilience in the future. Hopefully this will lead to new recommendations to the egg industry to improve laying hen welfare, by providing them with the resources to be more resilient to stress-full experiences.

Logo slide

ChickenStress offers 14 positions for PhD students across the different participating institutions. The opportunity to do research in an internationally competitive research group is of course an important part of doing a PhD, but being a student in a European training network is not only about the individual projects. What is special about the ChickenStress project, why should people apply to this network?

The 14 positions vary widely in the scientific disciplines they represent: from basic neuroscience projects, trying to understand how the stress response is regulated in the forebrain, through more bio-informatics projects, to applied hen behaviour projects. In addition to being trained in these specialist disciplines represented by the different supervisors, who are all international leaders in their fields, the students will all also do a secondment (placement) in another lab in the network and another secondment with an industrial partner. These placements will increase the students’ scientific skill sets and their employability skills more widely. They will also see how their academic research can have real-life implications with real impact. In addition, we will have 4 network-wide events in which the students learn about different aspects of stress regulation, genomics and the interaction between research and industry, as well as present their (interim) results to each other. The aim is that the 14 students, even though they will be based across Europe, form a real cohort, who communicate with each other regularly through electronic means, and contribute significantly to the success of the network as a whole. They will be expected to organize webinars within the network, and to communicate with the public. Anybody interested in applying can still do so before May 15th 2019, by going to our provisional website: www.ncl.ac.uk/cbe/chickenstress.

With a background in poultry welfare research myself, I know how big and complex the issues in this field are. ChickenStress offers an opportunity to tackle some of these questions in a concerted way with quite a lot of resources. May I ask you to be bold and suggest one or two questions where – if successful – ChickenStress can make some real progress?

Hopes are of course always high at the start of such an endeavour, and we all know how slow and twisted the paths from science to application can be. However, I do believe that we are (still) in a crucial time with regards to the changes in housing systems from the old battery cages to whatever the new standard will be. Cage-free egg production seems to be growing very rapidly, with the USA now starting to follow the example of Europe. However, there are still very many unanswered questions about the different cage-free systems. The parts of the network that I think are the most likely to make some real progress when it comes to laying hen welfare, are the projects aimed at understanding the best route from early-life experiences (incubation, hatching, rearing) to adult laying environment. By hopefully making some very concrete recommendations about how hens should be incubated, hatched and reared, so they can cope optimally with the new adult housing environments (e.g. using different levels in multi-tier barns, using the range in free-range systems), I hope that this network will contribute to the successful implementation of these new cage-free production systems, both in terms of animal welfare, and in terms of egg production.

outdoor hens

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