The countryside bursts into life in the spring, but what kind of life will it be for many farm animals around the world? Intensively reared and often prevented from following their natural instincts, many animals will rapidly put on weight and be dispatched in the cause of the cheapest possible food.
Of course, there is growing concern among consumers about the welfare of livestock. Lots of us check labels to establish where and how things are produced, and emblems like the Red Tractor and the RSPCA’s Freedom Food have real significance for many shoppers. Thousands of British farmers are keenly aware of this concern and insist they always do their best for their animals; none more so than the team at Wytham Farm in Oxfordshire. It has sheep, cattle, pigs and hens, and its 425 hectares, nestled between the River Thames and Wytham Woods, became the birthplace of the science of ecology at the start of the last century thanks to researchers from nearby Oxford University. They changed the way we think about nature, and that pioneering spirit is still evident on the farm today, as the team of farmers and scientists from Oxford’s zoology department attempts to bring a more natural atmosphere to the competitive world of modern farming.
Raising the standard
The challenge they took on was to achieve the highest animal welfare standards while still operating a commercially viable farm – then to pass on their research to the industry in general. They did it because they felt that, although British farm welfare standards are among the best in the world, there is more to be done. Not only that, they gathered a disparate group of supporters around them, from Compassion in World Farming and the RSPCA to McDonald’s and Tesco, and they are now taking their work to Thailand, China and Brazil.
“We’ve brought together people who would have been poles apart a few years ago,” said Mike Gooding, managing director of Food Animal Initiative (FAI), the group set up 10 years ago to launch the project. “They discovered they share many common interests and the bottom line, however aspirational we may be, is that if it doesn’t pay it won’t work.”
As we wandered round the pig sheds, where scores of Gloucester Old Spots were rooting in deep straw and wood chip, Mike told me FAI’s philosophy is based on three Es: Ethics – food must be produced safely with the welfare of animals, farm workers and consumers in mind; Economics – food must be affordable from economically successful systems; and Environment – the planet must be kept secure in the face of threats such as climate change.
“We get financial help from our sponsors, but that goes into research and development work, not the farm budget,” he said. “So the farm has to earn its keep. What we are doing here is relearning knowledge that has been lost and applying it to modern farming.
“For instance, each group of pigs stays together for their lifetime and we don’t clip their teeth or dock their tails – which is common practice in pig farming – because they don’t bite each other. We keep them in a more natural environment, and by providing them with both forage and grain, scattered round the pens so they have to find it, they are kept busy and have less of an urge to compete.
“You can tell they are happy pigs because their curly tails haven’t been chewed, and though we use a rare breed, the same practice works just as well with commercial breeds.”
Hand picked breeds
The cattle at Wytham are reddish-brown Salers that originate from France. They were chosen because the cows have wide hips, so they don’t have difficulty calving, and they are good, long-living mothers. “All very important economic and welfare traits in a modern suckler cow,” Mike pointed out.
With the growing demand for free-range eggs and table birds, the Wytham team is also researching chickens that actually like being out in fields. Originally they were birds of the forest, used to foraging under the protective canopy of the trees, and these days they often get agitated in wide-open spaces. So chicks are played recordings of farmyard noises in the hatcheries to get them used to the outside world. And once out there, dog roses and elder have been planted to provide them with shade and shelter, and protein in the form of bugs and grubs. The bravest ones, who wander furthest away from protection, are earmarked for the gene pool that will produce a chicken that isn’t ‘chicken’.
The message from Wytham is being taken up on farms across the country and the team advises its main sponsors on welfare issues and strategy. It can’t be just coincidence that McDonald’s serves free-range eggs, beef from British and Irish farms, and seven million litres of organic milk every year.
“We’re also concerned about the wider issues of feeding the world,” said Mike Gooding. “Improving production and welfare is vital, but so is cutting down waste. Every week in Europe, 30 percent of the food purchased is thrown away. That has to stop.”