Animal welfare in the UK is among the best – if farmers play by the rules
Gwyn Jones sits on the Defra Farm Animal Welfare Board for England, which advises the UK government on how to set welfare standards. He was a dairy farmer for 35 years in West Sussex, starting with 200 cows and building up to 750 cows over the years. He is also vice-chairman of the Ruminant Health and Welfare group under Nigel Miller and chairs the new Defra BVD Eradication Group. He was a member of the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) for 10 years and chaired RUMA (Responsible use of Medicines in Agriculture) for seven years.
How do you find the representation of RSPCA welfare on UK farms?
Firstly, the RSPCA is a credible organisation, it is not in the same category as some animal rights NGOs, but it is not the right organization to draw a comparison between British agriculture and other country. I think it shows in the mix of animal welfare and welfare regulations when comparing. As someone who has sat on the Farm Animal Welfare Council and now the Defra Farm Animal Welfare Board for England advising the government on legislation, I know that here in the UK we have very high regulation of well-being and if all the farmers respect it, then we would be among the best in the world.
Do you think it is fair to assume lower welfare with stall dairy systems?
RSPCA confuses comparison of husbandry systems with actual animal welfare; it’s not about systems, it’s about management. I admit that I prefer to see the cows on the grass also in spring and summer, but it is a perception and not a well-being; we have to be honest about it. Here in the UK I have visited many dairy farms and some with large, fully housed herds which have exemplary welfare and health and therefore low antibiotic use. The public’s desire for grass-fed cows is a perception that is not based on actual results when assessing animal welfare. I don’t mind people saying they prefer the cows to be grazed, but it’s not true that grazed cattle have higher welfare. It may seem so, but there are a lot of potential health issues with weed; it’s about good management, not systems.
Is the mostly free-range calving system better for welfare in New Zealand?
You’re doing yourself a disservice by knocking someone else down, I won’t criticize New Zealand, but we all have welfare issues. If you study what the public wants, they want cows on the grass in the summer but indoors in the winter, like them.
You can also have harsh winters and conditions in New Zealand (particularly the South Island) and if you combine that with a spring block calving you are dependent on the weather at that time of year and have very poor calving conditions with far greater challenges than if these cattle were housed.
Remember that the New Zealand food sector is a master in marketing. They live and die by their commercialization since exports are so important to their economy. Exporting countries like the Netherlands, Ireland and New Zealand have farmers working with processors and exporters to ensure they are well represented and doing a very good job.
How do you find the comparisons on the UK and New Zealand sheep systems?
When you turn to sheep, New Zealand typically manages between 3,000 and 7,000 sheep per man on their easy care system. We shouldn’t forget how you get to an easy care system, but they operate to a high standard today, but these are very different standards to ours in the UK. Whilst by comparison we have a very low ewe to head ratio, we don’t just walk past an orphaned lamb on most UK farms – there is a lot more individual care, but with more costs than you would expect. have them with very large, easy-to-maintain herds.
Religious slaughter without stunning in the UK has been reported as a reason for declining welfare, do you see this changing?
We are hamstrung by improvements in these areas because the government is very reluctant to make changes to the rules on slaughter without stunning. New Zealand has successfully shown that animals are able to recover after stunning, so their kill-before-stun method is accepted. I find it hard to accept that if demonstrated in New Zealand (our laws do not permit demonstrating the same stunning and recovery here); surely if an animal recovers after stunning in New Zealand, it would in any country? Why do we still have to prove it here?
Where do you see improvements in farm welfare?
In New Zealand they are now turning the same level of attention they had on improving environmental standards in dairy farming towards better welfare for all animals and they are doing this very well together as a ‘industry. Just look at their ability to overcome the environmental challenges they face on dairy farms to see the huge improvements made. Now, the search for better well-being joins the list of priorities because they see it as a vital export route. We need to focus on lameness in dairies which is our biggest problem, calf rearing and young animal housing (ventilation and heat), good quality colostrum in sufficient quantity at the right time is the first element constitutive once an animal is born; it’s crucial and everything is so much easier if done right.
Here in England we have our Pathway program and the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own programs, which will significantly increase wellbeing over time. The Pathway will start out as voluntary to begin with, and can stay that way if there is good uptake. It will support farmers to pay for veterinary visits, advice (a tailor-made plan for each farm) and testing for BVD in cattle and anthelmintic resistance in sheep.
In an ideal world, we would make the greatest gain by improving the welfare of underperformers, but these are hard-to-reach and hard-to-change farmers. So really the focus will be on the middle 50% who are doing a good job but still have room for some improvement, but reaching out to all farmers and giving everyone the opportunity to participate.
How do we know what the public wants on welfare standards?
When the public responds to polls as citizens, they demand high welfare, but when they are consumers, they are compromised or choose to buy food based on price and rely on the supermarket of their choice. not only to ensure food safety, which they all do, but also good welfare. I see this happening more and more as food becomes more expensive, you can see this with the volume of sales of organic food following people’s wealth; go up and down historically with the health of the economy.
The public is pretty clear about what they want when it comes to welfare standards, but they also readily admit that they don’t know much about agriculture. When you push them, they compromise their opinions and contradict each other, but it’s unfair to expect the public to know about farming and ranching any more than they know about other industries. This is why it is so important not to be misled when it comes to inaccurate welfare comparisons with other countries.