More space doesn’t always mean better welfare
A stimulating debate was aired recently on BBC Countryfile which then spilt over on to various websites, agriculture press and social media. It wasn’t a humdinger but because there was a chicken element involved that I found myself following it quite closely, and became interested in the questions it was throwing up. The debate was whether Red Tractor was better than Freedom Foods.
If you are not familiar with the two concepts they are effectively assurance schemes that cover food production and within them there are welfare standards that livestock must be kept to. The purpose behind them means the producer is able to use product labelling such as “Red Tractor” or “Freedom Foods” which in turn provides the buyer with confidence that the animal product they are buying comes from a strictly controlled and monitored level of operation.
So why the debate if both are aiming to provide assurance and buyer confidence? The crux it would appear for many involved in the discussions was in the term “welfare”, and which scheme provided the better or higher, levels of welfare. This is probably in part due to the media creating a situation where low to high welfare sits on the same sliding scale as cage to free range organic does, if we use chickens as an example. It doesn’t, welfare is a measure of well-being, happiness and health. High welfare is happy, healthy and well cared for animals; by the same measure low welfare is distressed, sick and unkempt animals.
At this stage in my life I live in quite a rural environment. The nearest bus stop is 2 miles away alongside the nearest shop and the nearest Post Office is a further mile away. My environment is clean and unpolluted and such I consider my welfare (eg my happiness, health and well-being) to be quite high. In 30 years time though I might struggle being so remote and moving to a village or town with amenities on my doorstep would improve my welfare along with downsizing. Being human I will always endeavour to monitor and manage my environment to maximise my welfare.
The issue as I see it is not which scheme provides a perceived ‘better’ environment for the livestock, it is the one which has the most effective management practices and most importantly of all, the quality and standard of the monitoring procedures which feedback into the process to ensure welfare is maximised. Without close checking and scrutiny of livestock operations then it doesn’t matter what the standard or policies are, they are open to abuse, and abused they will be unintentionally or otherwise.
Returning to chickens, but moving away from the commercial side of things, I’ve seen a vast range of poultry keeping setups. There have been the small fixed pens containing trios of birds that are kept indoors and under artificial light through to the free ranging flock who ‘roam for miles and love to roost outdoors’.
At face value the later would seem to be the better welfare set up but closer inspection shows the penned birds to be exhibiting all the correct behaviours expected from a content and healthy animal whereas the free rangers are an underfed and lice infested flock whose love of roosting outdoors is down to the fact their house is crawling with red mite.
Sure, providing an environment that’s is as natural as possible will contribute towards attaining the requirements of better welfare but it’s down to the keepers management and monitoring to ensure those levels of health, happiness and well-being are in fact achieved. A stockperson lacking in those skills is a liability to livestock welfare regardless of the setup they have for their animals.