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What animal welfare really means for you

What defines good animal welfare? Professor Marie Haskell has dedicated her research career to discovering the answers. Chloe Palmer finds out more.

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Marie Haskell
Marie Haskell

Animal welfare has come to the fore in the Brexit discussions, with politicians promising farmers and consumers alike that the UK’s excellent animal welfare standards will not be bartered for favourable trade deals.

 

But what defines high animal welfare standards and can we be sure they really guarantee a higher quality of life for the UK’s farm animals?

 

Professor Marie Haskell has spent the last 30 years of her career discovering what makes an animal more content and which measures can contribute to reduced stress and boredom levels.

She has witnessed significant change in the nature of the discussion around animal welfare.

 

“When I began my PhD in 1988 looking at how farrowing crates affect the behaviour of sows, the welfare of cows was not an issue. The focus of research then was pigs and poultry because their confinement was something which concerned the general public and farmers.

 

“I went on to research why tethered sows compulsorily chewed chains and of course, soon after that, tethering was banned across the EU.

 

“There remains a trade-off, however, between the well-being of the sow and the piglets as the welfare of both is important. Only by looking carefully at the behaviour and needs of both can we design something which works. Some of the free farrowing systems have achieved this, I think,” Prof Haskell explains.

 

Prof Haskell grew up in New Zealand but spent the first years of her academic life in Australia as the pig sector in New Zealand was very small.

 

After settling in the UK in the early 1990s and continuing her work on pigs and poultry, Prof Haskell eventually switched her research focus to cows. Around the millennium, concern was growing about cows spending more time inside.

 

“We studied cattle which were continuously housed and compared them to those which spent a proportion of the year out at grass. We looked at a range of ‘welfare indicators’ because it is very difficult to find out how an animal actually feels.

 

“The only difference we found between the two groups was the cows which were continually housed did exhibit a higher incidence of hock abrasions, knee swellings and lameness. But this was the only difference we detected,” Prof Haskell says.

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CHOICE TESTS

 

Since this study, Prof Haskell has developed and studied ‘choice tests’ for cattle to learn when they will choose one type of environment over another.

 

“Behaviour is hard to evaluate for animals, so we give them choices so we are able to observe whether they value a situation highly enough to make the effort to actively choose it,” she says.

 

“We offered the cows a free choice between an outside and an inside environment. They had to make an effort to walk to the fields outside and so we found whenever there was food offered inside the building, they tended to stay inside.

“When the ration inside had run out, the cows usually chose to go outside, and they also went outside to lie down,” Prof Haskell adds.

 

She says temperature also influenced the cow’s behaviour in the study; when the housed environment became hot or humid, the cows went outside. But similarly, in hot sunshine, cows opted to move inside.

 

Prof Haskell points to a change in emphasis in welfare research from trying to prevent negative effects on animals to identifying and defining positive factors which will improve cow welfare.

“In the past, we looked at stress hormone levels and other physiological parameters to examine how the likelihood of animals experiencing pain or discomfort could be reduced.

 

“We looked at how animals avoided places which they associated with a painful experience. Now we are trying to measure positive behaviours so we can give animals a better life.”

 

Researchers over the last few years have started to look at ‘pain faces’ in animals, initially in rats and mice but more recently, in horses, cattle and sheep to study what facial expressions can tell scientists about an animal’s state of mind.

 

“Cows are particularly difficult to study because they are set up not to show emotion. There is strong evolutionary pressure selecting for cows not to exhibit signs of pain, stress or emotion as if they do, they are more likely to be picked off by a predator,” Prof Haskell says.

 

It will be increasingly important to measure the relative success of approaches to improve welfare of cows, according to Prof Haskell.

 

“Brexit poses particular challenges because if we plan to export to countries such as the United States, they have much lower welfare standards than us. Nobody wants to see a situation where we produce to their standards in order to compete.

 

“So we need to be able to measure what we are doing when we seek to improve animal welfare and understand how to give an animal a good life.”

 

GOOD LIFE

 

Researchers over the last few years have started to look at ‘pain faces’ in animals, initially in rats and mice but more recently, in horses, cattle and sheep to study what facial expressions can tell scientists about an animal’s state of mind.

 

“Cows are particularly difficult to study because they are set up not to show emotion. There is strong evolutionary pressure selecting for cows not to exhibit signs of pain, stress or emotion as if they do, they are more likely to be picked off by a predator,” Prof Haskell says.

 

It will be increasingly important to measure the relative success of approaches to improve welfare of cows, according to Prof Haskell.

 

“Brexit poses particular challenges because if we plan to export to countries such as the United States, they have much lower welfare standards than us. Nobody wants to see a situation where we produce to their standards in order to compete.

 

“So we need to be able to measure what we are doing when we seek to improve animal welfare and understand how to give an animal a good life.”

 

Prof Haskell acknowledges sentimentality sometimes governs how people view an animal’s welfare and this ‘can have unintended consequences’.

 

A new area Prof Haskell hopes to work on is the study of the role of social groups in cows and how this can be used to reduce anxiety and improve performance.

 

She says: “Other work with cattle suggests keeping animals in stable groups can be beneficial. So raising a cohort of calves together and keeping them in the same group for as long as possible can help to reduce stress levels and may enable these animals to recover from disease more easily.”

 

Looking to the future, Prof Haskell believes technology has an important part to play in aiding improvements to welfare and reducing the impact of disease.

 

“Precision livestock farming should allow farmers to look after more animals and still provide individual care. For example, activity monitors which to date are mainly used to detect oestrus, may now be able to provide an early warning system for ill health.

 

“The monitors can provide information about how long an animal is lying and standing and as these patterns of movement may change when an animal is lame or is suffering from mastitis, they may be a reliable indicator of the onset of a problem."

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