Livestock transport has become big business as supply chains have become increasingly diverse and, with animal welfare rightly at the fore during developments, the practice itself has experienced some change over the years. Hannah Park reports.
With a career specialising in animal welfare and physiology spanning decades, Professor Malcolm Mitchell’s research has influenced heavily on livestock transportation as we know it today.
Research work he has carried out together with colleagues underpins much of the current policy, regulation and practice surrounding livestock transport, but this did not come together overnight.
Originally from Chesterfield, Derbyshire, Prof Mitchell gained a first-class honours degree in physiology at the University of Sheffield, later also gaining his PhD there in gastrointestinal physiology, in 1980. Before joining SRUC in 2005, he spent 24 years at the Roslin Institute, where he was a principal scientist and then project leader.
Now set to retire, Prof Mitchell says there are some of the cornerstones that have shaped the sector as we know it.
Q: When did animal welfare during transport become nationally or internationally recognised?
A: Animals have been transported throughout history, but the first time there appeared to be any concern about health and welfare during transit, be that journey times, feeding and watering intervals, or conditions in general was in the late 19th century.
But other than some activity at local level in terms of animal welfare organisations, it was not until the 1970s that official concerns were raised in Europe by German vets.
A co-ordinated movement to try to improve welfare came through thereafter, through the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was at that time. This coincided with me and my colleagues starting to undertake research.
Q: Can you pinpoint any major breakthroughs throughout your career?
A: In late 1970s, it was felt there should be some kind of legalisation around livestock transport, and this resulted in the formation of some of the earliest European directives.
The first real consolidated milestone came in 1995 with the first documentation in which conditions and practices in transport were specified. The most recent piece of legislation is the ‘transport regulation’ which came into effect in 2007. It was important in terms of improving animal welfare with our research work contributing to key elements of the regulation.
Q: What have been the biggest transportation advancements?
A: We have seen huge improvements in animal health and welfare during transportation, thanks to the provision of a better environment and improvements in animal handling protocols.
Another example would be improvements in vehicle design and operation and, specifically, improvements in vehicle ventilation which have resulted in better welfare and increased productivity of animals in transit, be that
breeding stock or animals destined for slaughter.
Improvements in productivity, health and welfare achieved by better practices on-farm can be offset by poor conditions during the transport period so it is essential to optimise conditions and practice here.
But probably the most vital part of all is for us to have been able to provide a sound scientific basis for good education and training. Regardless of how good the vehicle or the guidelines are, it is vital to train and educate all the people involved in the process.
In this context, a key output of our work over the years was our contribution to a Europe-wide consortium which produced [in 2018] Guides to Good Practice for the Transport of Livestock which was disseminated to reach as many stakeholders as possible throughout the EU.
Q: How have technological advancements fed into your work?
A: Improving technological capabilities have enabled the development of devices for animal monitoring during transit, around things like body temperature, heart rate, respiration rate, activity and behaviour and so on.
We have also been able to combine a lot of technologies, particularly physiological sensors and apply these to monitoring animals during actual journeys. This enables us to employ physio- logical modelling to identify specific range and limits for stressors imposed during transportation.
Another example would be the development of tools for monitoring crucial outputs like thermal imaging. This enables monitoring of heat exchange between animals and also means we can identify, in some circumstances, areas of inflammation or areas of blood flow change which may occur for other reasons, such as injuries.
Q: What do you think the future has in store for the livestock transport sector?
A: There has been a huge amount of work done to get the animal transport sector to where it is
now, but that is not to say it is perfect now and there is still a lot of debate – particularly around journey times.
Key areas that I believe will be examined in the future are the use of air-conditioned vehicles, limits on journey times for long distance or export journeys, better definition of feeding and watering intervals and integration of driver driving times with animal travel times.
Research to date has been pan-European, and the worry is that Brexit will bring an end to that kind of research and could lead to the UK been excluded from programmes in the future. The science community will not close its doors, but it is likely that getting joint funding will become more challenging.