Free-range use by broiler chickens is often limited, whereas better use of the free-range area could benefit animal welfare. Use of free-range areas could be stimulated by more appropriate shelter or environmental enrichment (by decreasing birds’ fearfulness). This study aimed to assess the effects of shelter type, early environmental enrichment and weather conditions on free-range use. Three production rounds with 440 slow-growing broiler chickens (Sasso T451) were carried out. Birds were housed indoors in four groups (two with males, two with females) from days 0 to 25, during which two of the groups received environmental enrichment. At day 23 birds’ fearfulness was assessed with a tonic immobility (TI) test (n=100). At day 25 all birds were moved (in mixed-sex groups) to mobile houses, and provided with free-range access from day 28 onwards. Each group could access a range consisting for 50% of grassland with 21 artificial shelters (ASs, wooden A-frames) and for 50% of short rotation coppice (SRC) with willow (dense vegetation). Free-range use was recorded by live observations at 0900, 1300 and 1700 h for 15 to 21 days between days 28 and 63. For each bird observed outside the shelter type (AS or SRC), distance from the house (0 to 2, 2 to 5, >5 m) and its behaviour (only rounds 2 and 3) were recorded. Weather conditions were recorded by four weather stations. On average, 27.1% of the birds were observed outside at any given moment of observation. Early environmental enrichment did not decrease fearfulness as measured by the TI test. It only had a minor effect on the percentage of birds outside (0.4% more birds outside). At all distances from the house, SRC was preferred over AS. In AS, areas closer to the house were preferred over farther ones, in SRC this was less pronounced. Free-range use increased with age and temperature and decreased with wind speed. In AS, rainfall and decreasing solar radiation were related to finding more birds outside, whereas the opposite was true in SRC. Behaviour of the birds depended on shelter type, distance from the house, early environmental enrichment, time of day and age. Chickens ranged more and farther in SRC, possibly because this provided a greater sense of safety because of the amount of cover and/or better protection against adverse weather conditions. These results indicate that SRC with willow is a more appropriate shelter for slow-growing broiler chickens than A-frames.
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