Profit before animal welfare


s we come round to lambing time again (which should be starting in the next 24 hours!), I start to worry about what to do if we have to intervene directly. If the lamb doesn't come out head and forelegs first, then we'll have to get involved in pushing the little lamb back in again, and trying to  reconfigure limbs to get the lamb out in the best way possible...or just out. However, having done an evening on lambing at the local vet's recently, I learned that the above situation is not that likely to happen to primitive and hill breeds (our Herdwicks being one of these breeds). Intervention is, however, far more likely in modern breeds of sheep where large tups are crossed with smaller ewes, and due to the size of the lamb, the farmer has to get involved in the lambing process. These situations are much more risky for the ewe and lamb, and sometimes only one can be saved.

This led me to thinking about meat production in modern society, and how we push to get the maximum possible from the resources available. This can be an admirable human trait. But it can, as in the case of the sheep, be done at the expense of other living beings. It feels like the welfare of the animal is put secondary to the commercial value. A large lamb which gains muscle quickly will be ready sooner, and will sell for more. Smaller primitive breeds, such as herdwick or swaledale, have smaller lambs which grow much more slowly. Thus, the time taken for them to be ready for slaughter is much longer (maybe one year compared to five months for texel/mule cross breeds), there won't be as much muscle, and so they cost more to keep and will sell for less.

The same 'commercial-value-over-welfare' theme can be seen in broiler chickens (chicken raised for meat). The breed 'Cornish Rock' is a bit of a freak. It has been bred by humans to grow muscle (the bit that we eat) extremely fast. A Cornish Rock will be ready for slaughter at six to twelve weeks. In reality, it is still only a chick in an adult body. We kept three of these chickens. After approximately five weeks of life, one of them died unexpectedly (probably of a heart attack), and so we slaughtered the other two soon afterwards so that they didn't succumb to organ failure as well. This is common in this breed. They put on muscle so fast that their organs cannot keep pace, and so fail. These same chickens are marketed as 'free-range' and 'organic' in supermarkets, and they may well be. However, what quality of life do these birds have? Research from the Aarhus University in Denmark has shown that these birds are likely in pain due to their fast growth rate, when compared to slow-growing heritage breed broiler chickens.

I know some farmers who do put animal welfare at the top of their priority list. But, they still need to sell their produce to make a living. Since supermarkets and people want cheap, abundant meat, farmers will opt for the large lambs and fast-growing chickens; and this inevitably leads to a lower quality of life for the livestock and birds. One solution would be for people to eat less meat in their diet, thereby reducing the need for the mass-production of meat. This would mean that farmers would be put under less stain to produce more meat per lamb or chicken in order to make a living. I do wonder if we, as a society, could change our attitudes to having so much meat in our diet?

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