Alick Simmons is a veterinarian, naturalist and photographer. After a period in private practice, he followed a 35-year career as a Government veterinarian, latterly as the UK Government’s Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer. Alick’s lifelong passion is wildlife; he volunteers for the RSPB and NE in Somerset, is chair of the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, a member of the Wild Animal Welfare Committee and a trustee of Dorset Wildlife Trust. A particular interest of his is the ethics of wildlife management and welfare. He is pictured above on the People’s Walk for Wildlife in September 2018.
In the first two posts in this series (Blog 1 and Blog 2) I explored animal exploitation, and gave reasons why we seem to accept differences in what we will tolerate. I posited that decisions for people with an interest in animal welfare about what they might accept, might be better taken with more information. For example, in addition to the protection provided by legislation, purchasing animal products that met your values might send a message to legislators, producers and retailers and ultimately improve animal welfare.
This third post deals provides an outline of that information dealing with farmed animals and research animals. Let’s start with farming. Livestock farming in the UK is a large, primarily commercial enterprise involving many thousands of people providing good quality, safe food for many millions of people. The welfare of these animals is important, or should be important, to producer and consumer alike. To be clear, with the exception of a tiny minority, in my experience, the welfare of animals in the care of farmers is and always has been important. Farmers take pride in their animals. This is not simply a matter of profit although that is an important motivator. In short, most farmers care.
Livestock farming in the UK consists of a range of systems. At one end of this range, for example, is the system of rearing ewes and lambs in the uplands. This hasn’t changed much in over a century and is an example of low-input, low-output farming generally described as ‘extensive’. At the other, modern meat chicken production is an example of high-input, high-output farming and is generally described as ‘intensive’. However, for each farmed species there are examples of both intensive and extensive husbandry. Dairy farming sits somewhere between these extremes.
Ancestral forms of pigs, cattle, sheep and chickens are social animals, living in dynamic groups which contain individuals of both sexes and all ages. Social structures allow the individual to make the best of their environment, keep safe, find food and breed successfully. This includes foraging, territorial defence, courtship and mating, nest building and rearing young. Much behaviour is innate; the animal is ‘pre-programmed’ although the immediate environment and experience influences how it is expressed.
Livestock farming has a substantial impact on farm animal behaviour. As soon as a fence encloses a group of animals, their behaviour changes. The social groups are formed by the farmer who makes the decisions about food, breeding and where and when to roam. For example, for obvious reasons, dairy cattle are generally kept in single-sexed groups. Chickens are frequently housed in groups of upwards 20,000 birds.
Until relatively recently it was believed that selective breeding had virtually eliminated these behaviours. The full repertoire was no longer needed as the farmer provided the food, shelter and made the decisions about when and with whom to breed. Why select to retain the protracted foraging behaviour of the pig when on the farm the food is directly placed in front of it? However, these innate behaviours are more resilient that we thought. Studies in the 1980s showed that, even with no previous access to the outdoors, it is only a matter of days until, for example, a pregnant sow starts to build a nest for her piglets. Social groups form as before and roots are grubbed up from the soil as if generations of selection had never occurred.
While not conclusive this suggests that the full behavioural repertoire of domestic animals is retained despite generations of selective breeding. Much of this repertoire is suppressed or altered by the practices of today’s farming. Does that matter?
Let’s consider the pig. In the past, most breeding sows in the UK were tethered or kept in crates during pregnancy. Once a sow was known to be ‘in pig’, it would be put in a crate (or tethered by the neck or girth) for around 3 months until it was ready to farrow. The crate was just long enough for the sow to lie down but not wide enough to allow her to turn around. The sow would be fed a diet sufficient for pregnancy but generally this would be given just once or twice a day. The advantages, for the farmer, was that one could guarantee that the sow was getting the right amount of food and that there would be no fighting. However, there were disadvantages. In comparison with loose-housed sows, sows in crates showed an increased amount of lameness probably associated with poor overall fitness caused by confinement and lack of exercise. Skin ulcers could be common unless stockmanship was good. There was another, potentially more serious concern: Many sows in crates developed stereotypical behaviours. They would chew the bars of the crates to the extent that their teeth would wear flat or develop a weaving motion sometimes for hours at a time. This was interpreted by animal behaviour scientists as a coping mechanism developed in response the desire to forage being thwarted, something that a free range pig would devote hours to every day. Tethering or crating pregnant shows was eventually banned in the UK (and subsequently in the rest of the EU). The majority of sows are now kept in outdoor systems.
The issue of behavioural ‘needs’ remains controversial. Some scientists believe that denying an animal the opportunity to exhibit the full range of its behavioural repertoire is a welfare problem even if other needs such as food, shelter, comfort and health are met. Their argument is essentially this: These animals might grow, breed, produce milk, remain physically healthy and live longer than in the wild but the nature of their environment and the way in which their social groups are manipulated means that they are subjected to emotional stress that effects their welfare.
Despite some fundamental changes to the way some animals are kept, the behavioural repertoire of some farm animals remains curtailed. At best, it is modified to suit farming practice and commercial reality. There are no bachelor herds of goats or cattle, commercially-reared poultry are often in huge single-sex groups, pigs are weaned and removed from their mothers at around 3-6 weeks of age rather than several months as happens in the ancestral form, the wild boar. A dairy cow is separated from its calf generally within 48-72 hours of birth. Many systems require the animals to be confined inside for at least part of their lives.
On the other hand, most sheep and beef systems allow free ranging and the ewe and cow to keep and suckle its progeny for something approaching a natural weaning period. Pigs kept outside and provided with the opportunity to forage rarely develop stereotypies.
Are these restrictions serious enough for you to care? Could you make a more nuanced choice if you knew more about how these animals are kept rather than simply avoiding all animal products altogether? Let’s consider, two commonly farmed species, the chicken and the dairy cow.
The poultry sector is large, complex, sophisticated and successful. Most of the production is in the control of a small number of horizontally and vertically integrated companies controlling many aspects of production including hatcheries, feed mills, farms and slaughterhouses. However, we are less interested in the corporate structure of the organisations that the way the birds are reared and cared for. Two things stand out.
First, the strains of birds used for meat (‘broilers’) on the one hand and, on the other for laying eggs (‘layers’) are the product of many generations of selective breeding and are very different.
Second, the sheer scale. In the UK, we produce close on 1 billion broilers every year. That means almost 20 million chickens are killed and consumed each week.
With production and consumption on that scale concerned citizens would surely want to know a bit about how it’s done. In the UK, broilers aren’t reared in cages; the vast majority of broilers are reared in large sheds with a floor covered in a deep litter which is usually wood shavings. They are placed there as day-old chicks, kept under carefully controlled conditions, fed a continuously-available scientifically-formulated diet and, depending on the market, collected and slaughtered at anything between 30-40 days of age.
It hasn’t always been that way. A meat bird in the 1950s took between 12 and 14 weeks to reach a suitable size. In 2019, a similarly-sized bird takes about a third of that time. Sophisticated breeding and genetics means the modern broiler is fast-growing, docile and has a large skeleton with a muscular profile.
At the start of the growing ‘cycle’, the day-old chicks don’t take up much space. The birds are placed at a density of 18-20 birds per square metre which means that when they are close to slaughter weight (1.5 -2.0 Kg), the birds take up a high proportion of the available floor space. Provided the environment is maintained at the optimum temperature and humidity, the building is properly ventilated and food and water is of the right quantity and quality, then birds reach market weight in the expected time with little problem. A former colleague once likened the modern broiler chicken to a Formula 1 car; sophisticated (generations of selective breeding), fast (grows fast) and wins (profitable). But it needs care, attention and the very best supportive technology to perform at its peak. And if the car doesn’t get that – it won’t go or it crashes. Just like a poorly supported broiler.
Is there an alternative? There is, but note that perhaps 98 out of 100 birds are reared in these intensive conditions. In alternative systems, diets are less protein- and energy-rich and the strains of birds used are slower growing and with less extreme conformation. Stocking densities are lower. The result is a bird that reaches a slaughter weight at anything between 8 and 14 weeks. It is a more mature animal and has bones rather than cartilage and a much firmer flesh which tastes of ….. chicken! However, less intensive rearing means slower growth. This, combined with the lower stocking rate, means fewer birds from a given area with the result that an oven-ready chicken is between 3-5 times more expensive.
Does intensive broiler rearing prevent the expression of normal behaviour? I think it’s difficult to tell. Selective breeding has produced a docile, fast growing and hungry bird but because it is killed so young territorial and breeding behaviour doesn’t get a chance to develop. But there are enough other concerns about the rest of the system to make me consider carefully whether this is a form of exploitation that I can stomach.
Let’s consider the dairy farm. There are around 1.9 million dairy cows in the UK kept in units of between 30 and 500 cows. Herd size is increasing. The average in the UK is 140 cows (2019) in comparison with 1996 when it was 75.
Fed on a high energy and protein diet, the average annual milk yield per cow is 7800 litres (2019). The dairy cow is therefore very different from the (extinct) ancestral form which, when suckling, would produce around around 1000 litres to rear a calf. Selective breeding, better health care and sophisticated diets have helped produce the efficient, modern dairy cow but, like the broiler, it comes at a price.
The physical and physiological impact of producing so much milk and the huge dietary intake takes it toll. One could use longevity as, admittedly, a fairly crude proxy for the impact of high productivity. Take the beef suckler cow (that is, a cow kept simply for rearing calves for beef); on average, the age which a suckler cow is removed from the herd for reasons of health, infertility, etc. is between 8 and 10 years old whereas for the dairy cow it is five. It is an over-simplification to state that shorter longevity is a consequence of the animal being ‘worn out’ but it is no exaggeration to say the dairy cow has a harder time than a beef cow. Add to that concerns about the impact on the calf being removed from the dam at around 48-72 hours of age, the lack of any normal social structure in a herd consisting completely of adult females and anything up to 6 months of the year being housed on concrete floors one might have concerns about the welfare of such animals irrespective of how their nutritional and physical needs are met.
Of course, there are lower impact systems which use lower yielding, smaller cows and a less intensive diet which better meet the cows’ needs. Organic systems claim to be a more sensitive system. However, the fact remains that much modern dairy farming is intensive and increasingly so.
Space prevents me going into detail about other farmed species but one could produce similar evidence about sheep and pigs. I have not yet touched on the environmental and public health that are raised by livestock farming: These are important issues for anyone concerned about animal ethics and are covered in the next post.
Let’s turn to research animals. Although research into cosmetics using animals is prohibited in the EU, almost 4 million animals are used annually in the UK for research into disease, toxicology, et as well as simply pushing back the boundaries of biology. It is a highly regulated environment with standards of husbandry, training and a level of scrutiny and reporting which puts other animal exploitation to shame. All of it makes me uncomfortable but I am pragmatic about this because of tangible benefits which, for me, in most cases outweigh the substantial drawbacks. Our ability to prevent and treat infectious disease (e.g. vaccines), chronic degenerative disease (e.g. dementia) or life threatening events (e.g. stroke) would be much reduced were it not for research using whole animals. I am much less comfortable about the research seeking simply to improve our knowledge particularly when that involves invasive procedures and protracted use. That said, I am conscious that much current medical advances are founded on similar knowledge but gained decades ago. It is worth noting that, as well as regulation, initiatives like the ‘3Rs’ (https://www.nc3rs.org.uk/the-3rs) which seek to Reduce, Replace and Refine are driving substantial improvements in all areas.
While we might have reservations about livestock farming to the extent that we would either stop eating meat and wearing their skins or seek to only source meat from systems that we are comfortable with, the same approach doesn’t work for research animals. Other methods like campaigning might be necessary for those that to see an end to or a substantial reduction in animal research.
In the next and final post I’ll outline how you might get more information and suggest how you might use this to develop your own ethical position.