Health and welfare in a post-Brexit world will be largely defined by Defra’s Animal Health and Welfare Pathway, but what will this mean for farmers?
The Animal Health and Welfare pathway was announced back in 2018, but as we get nearer to the estimated 2022/2023 start date, details are beginning to emerge about what it will actually mean for farmers.
Michael Seals, a Derbyshire farmer and chairman of England’s Animal Health and Welfare board describes the pathway as ‘ambitious’ but having huge potential benefits.
He says: “We have looked around the world at different country’s health and welfare schemes and while there are some good examples, there is nothing like this.
“Our scheme is one of the most ambitious projects out there.
“Trying to get every livestock keeper to work together on animal health and welfare is a huge ask, but the potential gains are equally as huge.”
He explains the pathway will promote the production of healthier, higher welfare animals at a level beyond compliance and regulations.
He says: “Animal health and welfare are inextricably linked.
“We want to improve health, and as a consequence of that we will also improve welfare standards.
“Key to this is continued improvement. We do not see this as a five, 10, 15 or even 20-year plan. This will be ongoing so that we can deliver sustained improvement over time.”
Professor Christine Middlemiss, the UK’s chief veterinary officer, adds that livestock farmers should also see benefits in terms of productivity and enhanced international reputation.
She says: “This is about improving productivity.
“We want to be producing a high quality product, with reduced inputs including a reduction in the intensity of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock, and also a reduction in the use of antimicrobials, which will help slow the spread of antimicrobial resistance.
“There is a lot of good reasons for saying ‘yes, we already have good animal health and welfare’, but if we improve it further it will hold tremendous weight internationally.”
The intention is to launch the first schemes in 2022/2023 and these will in particular tackle endemic diseases.
Mr Seals says: “The cost of endemic diseases is estimated at £600 million a year in England. If we can reduce that by half it will be a huge gain, not just in terms of the monetary gain, but also on the health and welfare of the animals.”
The schemes are being designed by focus groups consisting of farmers and vets and will initially be open to cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry farmers.
Prof Middlemiss says the list of endemic diseases is ‘long and varied’.
She explains: “Each sector is looking at its own endemic diseases. There needs to be a co-ordinated control strategy in each sector.”
She adds each sector will strike a balance between tackling specific diseases and improving overall health at an individual farm level.
She says this might mean for the sheep sector these schemes may be more focused on disease at a farm level, but for pigs and cattle it might be more disease specific.
For example, the cattle sector might want to focus on bovine viral diarrhoea, and the pig sector on porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome.
“What will be important is getting national level data on endemic disease.”
With this being a scheme for England only, there will also be some consideration of how these will work with the devolved nations.
Prof Middlemiss says it is hoped all farmers will ‘embrace’ the scheme.
She says: “We want everybody to be involved in this, as we want everybody to improve.”
How farmer interaction will be monitored is still up for discussion, but one possible way could be through farm vets.
“This could be via an annual vet visit, which would also help us in collecting the baseline information that will be needed for these schemes,” Prof Middlemiss says.
“It is not about the government being big brother, it is about getting national level data on endemic disease that the industry can access.
“If you take for example BVD, we have pockets of information from the various BVD schemes and laboratory testing results, but we do not have a fully national picture.”
Mr Seals says this is not a way of farmers needing a ‘licence to farm’, but instead farmers would see the benefit of working together making improvements to health and welfare at an individual farm level and across the country.
He adds: “We acknowledge there is a challenge in finding ways to secure the engagement of all animal keepers, with some being ‘harder to reach’ than others.
“We will identify a follow-up system to assist those with needs, and will consider the implications for appropriate inspection and enforcement.
“We have got to find ways of getting everybody involved, and make it simple and easy to do so.”
In addition to direct programme support, as part of the pathway a number of small animal welfare grants will be available initially, followed by productivity grants, and these will turn into large animal welfare grants.
Mr Seals says: “These grants could be used to make improvements to building ventilation, cattle handling facilities, weighing equipment, activity monitors or staff training.”
It is envisaged that there will be some form of ‘payment by results’ with pilot studies into this due to start in 2023/2024. It is hoped that this will then be rolled out by 2025/2026.