A key part of the Christian Ethics of Farmed Animal Welfare project is to ensure our deliberation is well-informed about what the raising of farmed animals is like for farmers, farm workers, and farmed animals. One way we're doing that is by including a series of farm visits in the project programme. The site visits enable the Research Team and Partner representatives to be introduced to different ways of raising farmed animals and to discuss farmed animal welfare in the context of current UK practice.
Our first set of site visits took place in December 2018, in the south-west of England. Four members of the Research Team were joined by two partner representatives.
The pigs we saw seemed the least well cared for of all the animals we saw. They were very tightly stocked in groups in indoor pens. There was room enough for them to move around slowly in the pens, but when they were excited and trying to move quickly, they piled up on top of each other. They were dirty, they had no straw, and the single nod to enrichment was a wooden block on the end of a chain in each pen. The farm business manager noted that these are not the best living circumstances, but he assured us of his confidence that the pigs were adequately cared for and their needs met (warm and well fed).
We saw dairy cows in three settings. At the first, we saw cows in a rather clinical, year-round indoor setting, with daily monitoring for health, disease, and milk production. We learned that the calves were separated from their mothers from the very beginning, to avoid the possibility of spreading disease. At another farm, we saw (from a distance) a wholly pasture-fed herd of dairy cows, milked once a day for eight months of the year, and (close-up) a herd that spends half the year indoors, milked twice daily. We watched the herd indoors queue up and wait to step onto the milking carousel. Once on, they received a quick health check, udder-wash, and were then hooked up to the milking apparatus. They ate during the milking and walked off when the carousel had made one circuit. The more indoor cows had the chance to spend some social time with each other and they had access to ample forage, but we wondered about the queue for milking which required them to wait up to two hours for their turn.
We visited a free-range chicken farm which granted the chickens access to the out-of-doors, but that out-of-doors space seemed poorly designed. Once outside, the chickens could not easily reach the grassy area or the shade trees which the free-range category requires. On the cloudy day we visited, most of the chickens remained crowded indoors.
The one beef cattle farm we visited is owned and operated by an older farmer and his daughter. She showed us around and described her deep affection for the long line of cows who birth and raise the cattle sold for meat. She explained that she prioritises her care of the animals over obtaining higher welfare certification; the paperwork and the standardised requirements would make her high welfare care more difficult.
We also had the chance to visit a small abattoir. We were given a tour of the facilities, with descriptions of the process and details about what factors contribute to the calm and comfort of the animals on their way to be killed.
We were grateful for the generosity of the farmers to show us around, explain how things are done, and answer any questions. In between farms, we shared meals at local restaurants. We shared impressions, questions, concerns, and our beginning attempts to make sense of the experiences toward ongoing conversations and the development of the Policy Framework.
The experience of seeing, touching, breathing the same air as animals in their farm habitat offered insight it would have been difficult to attain from a distance. It was pretty powerful to learn that a block of wood could count as enrichment for pigs crammed into a small space with no straw or access to the out-of-doors, while we were looking into the pigs’ eyes and feeling the doors of their pens shake as they moved. On our next farm visits, we plan to add time to the schedule for more quiet reflection, noting down impressions, and discussion.
A lunchtime we shared with farmers' representatives gave us a new and unsettling awareness of the pressures and challenges facing farmers. All around the (big) table, the farmers shared their feelings of frustration, discouragement, abandonment, and desperation. They are experiencing financial insecurity; over-whelming pressures from their buyers (who demand higher welfare standards, reduce the pay to farmers for their products, and cut into farmers’ business by stocking plant-based alternatives on the shelf); a lack of support from the government (who they perceive to be inattentive to the ramifications of post-Brexit market competition with cheaper, lower-welfare, imports, and imposes unreasonable regulations requiring more and more paperwork); the risk of disease and the extraordinary lengths they must go to protect their animals from disease; isolation and loneliness; and the social climate which scapegoats farmers as bad and as the cause of lower animal welfare.
They noted that they were farmers because they care about animals and choose to spend their lives with animals. They described long hours (not necessarily factored into costs), the loss of European labourers, the rapid increase in required paperwork and even more to qualify for subsidies. They noted that their financial investment takes years to recoup and that changing farming methods is often financially impossible.
This first set of site visits strongly confirmed our sense of the value of having conversations about ethics of farmed animal welfare in the context of farms, farmers, and farmed animals. We have plans to cover a wide range of species and different rearing practices during the rest of the site visit programme.