Welfare on the Farm
Farming animals is demanding the ultimate sacrifice from those animals. They either give a lifetime of production (e.g. milk, eggs) or give up their lives, for the meat trade (fur farming does not feature in this article, as it is so unjustifiable). For this reason alone, it behoves to do our utmost to secure optimum welfare for the animals we exploit in this way.
Most traditional, family-run farms treated their animals not only as a precious commodity but also as sentient beings, worthy of respect and love. This culture is fading, with the onset of larger and larger farms. Individual animals are sinking into anonymity, in larger groups. Nonetheless, there are many farms working hard to secure the welfare of the animals. Areas that can always benefit from extra attention are bedding areas, housing and ventilation, foot health, udder health, food quality, water quality, exercise and the ability to express normal behaviours.
Premises should be free from objects likely to cause injury and buildings should be maintained for safety and comfort. Flooring should be secure and well-maintained. Excreta should be handled in such a way as to prevent discomfort to the animals.
The RSPCA and the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) have published a list of five freedoms, to which our animals should be entitled. They are:
- Freedom from hunger and thirst.
- Freedom from hunger and thirst.
- Freedom from pain, injury or disease.
- Freedom to express normal behaviour.
- Freedom from fear and distress.
These are worthy objectives. However, standards for farms and the way in which they are interpreted by inspection authorities have often fallen short of achieving these very basic freedoms. The most intensive farms and factory farms are the ones on which it is most likely to find these freedoms being encroached, as a fundamental part of the system. Thousands of birds in one airspace, hens in battery cages and pigs having to sleep in their own slurry are not impossible to find and cannot really be interpreted as fulfilling these basic freedoms, however you read them. De-beaking chickens, to prevent them mutilating themselves and each other, as a result of over-crowding, cannot be interpreted as fulfilling these freedoms. Animals suffering respiratory disease as a result of poor ventilation is another example. Even open-air pigs may not be as well-off as it may seem, as they are often on bare earth or mud, with no vegetation to graze to express normal behaviour patterns and to provide a normal healthy diet.
Sadly, farm assurance schemes fall short, in many cases, of preserving these freedoms. Even RSPCA Freedom Food farms seem to have have been found wanting. Shocking revelations by Hillside Animal Sanctuary (see Links) show that all is not well, even in high profile farming situations, including Bernard Matthews and the RSPCA Freedom Food Scheme.
Supermarkets (Tesco appears to be a prime mover in this) generally try to keep prices of food down, on the shelves. This is likely to impinge on welfare, at the end of the day. Money should not be the main motive. Space, good feeds and comfort cost money. Our farmers cannot compete with countries with lesser welfare standards. If the consumer does not value welfare, enough to spend money on extra-welfare food, then animals will suffer. As usual, the consumer can be king and can turn policy.
At the time of writing, it seems that the most widely consistent standards for welfare that we have found are with the Soil Association (organic – see Links). Otherwise, getting to know your local farm and witnessing its own welfare standards seems to be the best way to assure yourself of the welfare of the animals whose products you purchase.
N.B. The process of slaughter often involves unacceptable levels of stress and distress for the animals, either during transportation or at the abattoir or both. More must be done, on a country-wide basis, to improve welfare during transit and slaughter. It is small wonder that vegetarianism and veganism have spread so widely.