Farm Animal Welfare: How Good is Good Enough?

from David Clough

I spend a lot of my time thinking and writing about farmed animals, but mostly at a desk in front of a computer screen. So I was delighted to get the chance to visit a small organic farm and an organic smallholding with Margaret, CreatureKind's Project Editor. One Saturday we found ourselves driving along English country lanes in search of a farm that had been in use since Medieval times.

As we navigated a narrow fenced track towards the farm, we were immediately confronted with a practical issue of animal care. An ewe stood in our way. She had presumably escaped from the field of sheep on our right, but it wasn't at all clear how she had done so. Driving on would frighten her further away from the field. We tried getting out of the car, but that had the same effect. In the end we drove on slowly, until the ewe realized she was more averse of the farm dog we were approaching than our car, and bolted past us.

We pulled up, pulled on wellington boots, and were welcomed by the dog and by the farmer. He showed us young chicks separated in batches hatched a week apart, housed in sheds warmed by heat lamps, before being big enough to move to the outdoor enclosures. Outside, we saw runs providing access to grass for the chickens to scratch in, with fencing and roofing to protect younger birds from predators.

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The sheep were in an enormous field with plenty of lush grass and views over a beautiful valley. I had the strong sense that there could be few better places to be a farmed sheep.

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The chickens are raised for meat, and we asked about where they were slaughtered. The farmer agreed to take us to the trailer used once a week to kill around 200 chickens, and described the process of handling them as gently as possible as they are placed eight at a time upside down in a ring of metal cones before being stunned and having their throats cut. The sheep are too big for this makeshift slaughter-house, and are transported to organic-certified abattoirs some distance away.

We had further conversation about what was involved in making the farm pay: the barn converted to host wedding receptions, with a bar on the site of an old cider press. I was struck, as I often am, by the way this farmer's life was lived in much closer proximity than my own to the demands of attending to the needs of the animals in his care.

The smallholding we visited was a more modest affair: a retired academic not far away who keeps a flock of 50 sheep in a field adjoining his house. After we waited inside with him for a refashioned back door to be delivered, he took us out to meet the sheep, and we were greeted by an idyllic scene of sheep grazing or resting below a spreading oak tree.

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One who had been hand-reared as a lamb came up to the fence so that he could have his head scratched. I spotted a hare lolloping along the fence and then off across the field. The academic-farmer spoke of how he makes little, if anything, from keeping the sheep, but enjoys a life lived alongside them and will miss it when he became too old to continue doing so.

 Everyone needs an afternoon snack now and then.

Everyone needs an afternoon snack now and then.

Afterwards, when we talked about our farm visits, I was acutely conscious how very few chickens get to live lives in the outdoors as the Soil Association certified birds we saw do. In contrast to the horrifically constrained and painful lives of the chickens in the broiler sheds I have also visited, where the smell of ammonia from their faeces dominates, the farm we had visited was literally a breath of fresh air. It would be a very great advance to bring an end to the intensive rearing of chickens, replacing them with chickens raised extensively and outdoors in the way we had seen.

And yet I also realised that, even in this extensive and organic mode of production, there is no interaction between the mother hens and their chicks, which seems like a fundamental feature of what it would mean to flourish as a hen, and as a chick. And while the mode of slaughter would be much less distressing than conditions in many of the large processing plants where broiler hens are killed, chickens were still being killed in their prime of life, when they would have had so much more life to enjoy ahead of them. The sheep had it better, it seemed to me, with the chance to suckle from their mothers, but male lambs were still castrated without anaesthetic, and the day would come when the lambs would be separated from their mothers, and then taken away on a trailer to be killed before they had reached maturity.

And yet I also realised that, even in this extensive and organic mode of production, there is no interaction between the mother hens and their chicks, which seems like a fundamental feature of what it would mean to flourish as a hen, and as a chick.

I'm hoping to begin a new project shortly that will mean regular visits to a wide range of farms and abattoirs, giving me a wider exposure to the various ways we are raising farmed animals for food. I look forward to becoming better informed about current practice, and about the most important issues for action. I am likely to be visiting many facilities where farm animals live lives that are very much worse than the chickens and sheep we visited on this trip, and I remain committed to encouraging Christians to stop consuming intensively farmed animals and to move to higher welfare sources, alongside reducing overall consumption. But I left these farms dissatisfied with the terms being offered even these farmed animals, and impatient for a broadening recognition that since we can get by without killing them, we should.