Is the point being missed on improving animal welfare? - Veterinary Practice
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Is the point being missed on improving animal welfare?

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

THE tradition of commenting on a rainy day with the phrase “nice weather for ducks” does seem to have more than a grain of truth in it.

That’s the conclusion of some recent research by the University of Oxford, carried out over a three-year period and to the tune of £300,000 of taxpayer’s money. Ducks appear to prefer standing under a water shower than merely swimming in a pond. Whether they prefer soap to shower gel was not reported.

It is easy to criticise this type of research as being something that proves the “bleeding obvious” but I guess that is what science is sometimes about: taking a fresh look at accepted wisdom and seeing if it really does stand up to scientific scrutiny. Not unexpectedly the research has come in for its fair (unfair?) share of ridicule from such disparate groups as the NFU to the Taxpayers’ Alliance.

I for one look forward to any future pearls of wisdom on such things as: whether sheep prefer to follow each other or strike out on their own; whether cows prefer eating fresh spring grass to mouldy hay; whether pigs prefer lying in straw to lying on rough concrete; and whether chickens prefer to forage for food or to have it placed in a pile before them.

Returning to the ducks, the real and serious reason for the research was to try and find out how water could be appropriately provided for farmed ducks in intensive conditions. In such situations ponds and troughs quickly become severely contaminated with organic matter.

Looking dreadful

Eventually the ducks’ protective oils are overcome and the inevitable result is ducks with wet, dirty feathers that look (and presumably feel) dreadful. Duck showers (with scavenged, filtered and recycled water) might then be the answer to this particular conundrum.

Why do we need to solve a problem such as this when nature has provided ducks with the means to “enjoy” water and keep their feathers clean and dry at the same time? Clearly because we are now putting ducks into an environment for which they are unfitted and which nature never intended them to deal with. Which begs the greater question: are we justified in doing it?

Intensification of animal production has been occurring over many years and has come with a whole host of disease and welfare problems. Research has largely been aimed at reducing the harmful effects of this intensification by providing alternative sources of “amusement” or the bare minimum that will satisfy the behavioural needs of the animals reared in such systems. All of these things, whilst worthy in their goal of improving animal welfare, really seem to be missing the point.

Surely the correct and ethical approach is to keep animals in systems that inherently meet their needs and create a sense of well-being for the animals concerned. Traditional suckled calf and fat lamb production systems probably come closest to achieving this ideal, closely followed by some of the more extensive outdoor pig systems that I’ve seen.

The dilemma

How, though, could we start to produce the massive quantity of chicken and pork (and presumably duck) currently consumed at anywhere near the current price if we began to keep all such animals in an environment that was more in tune with their behavioural needs? The answer almost certainly is that we couldn’t, and therein lies the dilemma.

Perhaps the solution is that we simply need to change our diet substantially. Chicken could once more became a luxury meat, to be enjoyed as a treat on the occasional Sunday rather than be seen as a cheap, sacrificial offering, to be both charred and undercooked (and I’m talking about the same drumstick here) on the age-old traditional British gas barbecue.

That suggestion may sound unpalatable (though considerably less so than the aforementioned chicken drumstick) but I suspect that we are fast approaching a time when some very serious decisions need to be made as to how we want to produce our food in the future and indeed what it is that we want to eat.

More food needed

Barring some natural or man-made catastrophe, the world human population seems set to grow for the foreseeable future, which means that more food will have to be produced from an increasingly smaller amount of agricultural land. Everyone knows that intensive animal production is very wasteful of food resources such as cereals and higher protein crops like soya.

Extensive animal production, however, can often make use of land that is marginal at best and impossible at worst to cultivate. It is low input but also low output. It is probably very efficient in the economic sense of the word but could not produce enough to meet the current and projected global demand.

It is clear that in the developed world most of us eat far more animal protein than we require or indeed is good for us. It would, therefore, seem sensible to encourage people to move to a more plant-based diet which would reduce the need to rear such large numbers of animals intensively.

The problem, of course, is that the laws of supply and demand would mean that the cost of animal protein to the consumer would rise considerably and consumption would essentially be rationed by one’s ability to pay. Not a particularly equitable state of affairs, though one which already exists for a wide range of foodstuffs such as caviar, truffles and fine wine.

Who would vote for a political party that promised to triple the price of chicken drumsticks? Not many, I suggest, even though with that sort of increase in price level, the standard of barbecue cooking would undoubtedly improve as would probably the waistlines of many of us. A win-win situation, in popular jargon, but a vote loser for any politician mad enough to suggest it.

That’s why “bizarre” research of the kind already discussed is likely to increase so that at least some attempt can be made at improving the lot of animals reared in the type of intensive systems that really have no place in a humane world. Which means that if you’re a duck and you want a vision of the future, it looks like it’s a case of queuing for the showers again.

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