Sunday 8 December 2019

Traditional Irish livestock farming systems are best

Cattle and sheep in Ireland don’t need to be farmed intensively
Cattle and sheep in Ireland don’t need to be farmed intensively

Pete Wedderburn - Animal Doctor

This year, Veganuary attracted more participants than ever, with over 250000 people choosing to go vegan for the month of January. I've been a participant in previous years. I valued the experience of avoiding all animal products for a period, but I have yet to be convinced to adopt the vegan lifestyle in its entirety, all the time.

For me, a mainly plant-based diet, with occasional consumption of meat, eggs and dairy products, is a satisfactory answer. This is for animal welfare, for my own health, and for environmental reasons.

Vegans tend to take a strong stance that is is always wrong to use animals against their will. A vegan friend tells me that it's a form of cruelty to allow an animal's life to be shorter than it might be: the removal of potential life is cruel.

My view is different: I think that many farm animals, having been domesticated for many centuries, are passively accepting, and are contented in human care as long as they are looked after well. Animals do not have sufficient self-consciousness to know that their lives will be shorter than their natural life span. I see sheep grazing in the green fields of County Wicklow on sunny spring days, and I even find myself envying their apparent contentment, at that moment.

For me, it's about ensuring that animals under the care of humans have lives that are worth living, followed by painless, fear free deaths. European legislation aims to ensure that this happens, although there are obvious areas of concern that do need to be addressed.

The biggest area that bothers me is the increasing intensification of livestock farming across Europe. The drive for continual growth, year on year, means that farmers are increasingly being asked to farm more animals in the same space, with the same staff numbers. This trend is supported by the EU Common Agricultural Policy, which disproportionately subsidises industrial farms, incentivising the proliferation of a particular type of farming model.

In Spain, there are now more pigs than humans. In the Netherlands, there are now so many dairy cows that the country cannot attain EU legal limits for nitrogen emissions. Industrial broiler production in Poland is currently growing by 10% every year. And along with this steady increase in animal numbers, smaller farms are being phased out. Bigger, more automated, industrialised farms are the new norm.

While this type of intensification and drive towards increased production may have been justified in times of food scarcity (e.g. after World War II), we live in different times. And if people were asked directly, I believe there would be strong support for a smaller scale, more animal-welfare-friendly model. Furthermore, even with our current situation, sustainability issues will begin to mean that further expansion of livestock farming will have to be limited because of concerns about greenhouse gas production. Why wait till then? Why not start to look at how to optimise our current livestock systems rather than cramming in ever-more numbers of cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry?

The biggest general welfare issue with all intensive industrialised livestock farming is the issue of close confinement. How can an animal have a fulfilled life when spending most of its time confined in a small, confined space like a cage or a concrete pen?

In Ireland, most farming is still done on a relatively extensive scale, with traditional small farms run by families. Cattle and sheep farming systems have so far avoided the intensive, feedlot style that has become popular in North America and parts of Europe. Irish cattle and sheep generally do have lives worth living.

I am not convinced that this is the case for most pigs and poultry.

Pigs are predominantly kept in industrial intensive conditions in Ireland, as they are across the EU, at high stocking densities. Pigs are intelligent creatures (smarter than dogs) yet they routinely suffer from lack of space and environmental stimuli such as appropriate rooting surfaces (they live on concrete floors). This results in inter-pig aggression and tail biting, which farmers try to prevent by using painful husbandry procedures like tail docking. The EU Pig Directive bans this, but this law is ignored in Ireland, as it is ignored in most other EU countries.

Free range pig production would mean more expensive bacon and pork, but the pigs would be far, far happier. Yes, there are free range pigs in Ireland, but they are the exception, not the norm. It's still difficult to find Irish free range pork products in supermarkets.

Poultry production has two branches: broilers for chicken meat, and layers producing eggs. In both cases, welfare concerns include the high incidence of disease problems (e.g. lameness, respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases, and pressure sores due to continual contact with the hard surface beneath the birds) and complications at the time of slaughter (harvesting birds in large sheds, transporting to slaughter houses, stunning them by hanging them upside down and dipping their heads in an electrified bath). Again, there are better ways to do things.

Traditional Irish farming has many plusses. Do we really need more, faster, bigger when it comes to livestock production?

Wexford People

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