RSPCA develops objective system to assess animal welfare

The RSPCA is trialling new methods of assessing the physical condition and behaviour of farm animals which it says will improve the well-being or livestock on Freedom Foods farms.

The society’s farm animal scientists have developed a system of measuring the welfare of animals through focusing on key indicators of their health and welfare.

Systems for dairy cattle, laying hens and pigs are already being trialled on some Freedom Food farms and could be in place on other farms on the scheme early next year.

Dr Julia Wrathall, head of the RSPCA’s farm animal department, said: “This is great news for animals, and the RSPCA is very proud that we first commissioned the work on animal welfare outcomes many years ago.

“Through the research and our own experience on-farm, we have identified key signs or ‘indicators’ of health and welfare for different farm animal species.

“By looking at the prevalence and nature of the various indicators during a farm visit, we can gain an understanding of what might need to be changed in the animals’ environment or management in order to improve their welfare.”

However, this system is not all about finding potential problems – it can also help confirm that farmers are looking after their livestock well. It could also help to identify potential problems at an early stage and allow them to be nipped in the bud.

For example, when a laying hen has a red, intact comb (crest) it can be a sign of good health and well-being.

But if it looks pale then the bird may be unwell and its health needs to be more closely examined, along with factors in its housing or care that could be affecting its health.

The RSPCA’s farm livestock officers will also look at the animals’ behaviour and what that tells us about their welfare when they visit Freedom Food farms.

“While to most stock-keepers much of this is common sense, this is the first time it has been scientifically researched and a comprehensive, objective system of measurement developed,” said Dr Wrathall.

As an additional part of their spot-checks, the FLOs will observe the animals for key signs of health and welfare as well as carrying out their normal checks that the animals’ environment and conditions meet the RSPCA’s welfare standards.

Dr. Wrathall added: “Through our Freedom Food scheme the RSPCA has already blazed a trail for farm animal welfare by giving due recognition and in many cases improved marketing opportunities to farmers who keep their animals to higher welfare standards. We are now hoping to use scientific research to add another dimension to the care provided to farm animals which will be unique to the Freedom Food scheme.”