THE ROYAL Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has proposed that future improvements to animal welfare standards should be linked to cross-compliance.

The report – Into the Fold – also advocates making rural development funds available to pig farmers who switch from slatted floor systems to straw-based solid floor systems. 

Under the RSPCA proposals, pig farmers would receive a one-off payment of 30% for building conversions and further assistance for three years to cover extra labour costs.

The same terms would apply to farmers who rear calves on slatted-floor systems.

But DEFRA has said the government currently has no plans to pay farmers for animal welfare-friendly farming under the current RDP.

The overwhelming emphasis of the existing English scheme, which runs until 2006, is on agri-environment, DEFRA executive Martin Nesbit told an RSPCA conference on May 17.

This takes up the bulk of the €300m (£204m) a year available, he said.

“A convincing case has not been made for the introduction of animal welfare schemes,” he told FW after the meeting.

“Stakeholder views are still being sought, but it is a question of funding. All RDP measures will need to demonstrate clear consumer and taxpayer benefit.”

The RSPCA‘s report acknowledges that labour costs can double for solid-floor systems but suggests a change to organic status whereby the market premium received by producers should cover the extra cost of labour.

The association also wishes to see measures that would encourage outdoor pig production by increasing the availability of suitable woodland.

It suggests combining outdoor pig production with the Farm Woodland Scheme.

Other pig proposals include increasing the area for a 90kg pig from 0.65m2 to 1m2, an increase of 54%.

The RSPCA also suggests making an animal veterinary health plan part of an agri-environment scheme.

But under its plan this would see vets visiting farms either fortnightly or monthly for a morning or a whole day at a time.

Mr Nesbit said funds were tight and, while the UK would be fighting for an improvement in the 3.5% share of rural development funds it currently gets from Brussels, securing more cash for future years would not be easy.

Were animal welfare to be included in the next RDP, to run from 2007 to 2012, this would probably mean cutting payments in other areas.

Mr Nesbit insisted DEFRA still had an open mind on this, though stakeholders will have to prevent some convincing arguments.