The first-ever chair of animal welfare and veterinary ethics at University College Dublin’s (UCD) School of Veterinary Medicine was appointed in February 2021.
Prof. Siobhan Mullan, formerly of the University of Bristol, is waiting earnestly for Covid-19 restrictions to ease before she can make the physical move to UCD.
She is eager to get started, she told Agriland – there is much to do.
But one of the first things on her list is to get on the road and meet as many Irish farmers as she can – pandemic regulations permitting, of course.
“I don’t feel like I can talk very strongly until I have met with farmers, seen what their farms are like, heard about what their aspirations are, and challenges too,” she said.
Another first for animal-welfare
Prof. Mullan’s appointment, which is supported by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM), coincided with another first – an Animal Welfare Strategy, launched in February by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue.
The strategy is, essentially, a document of intent that has outlined key animal-welfare issues and priorities up to 2025.
It comes at a time of transition – in the world, generally – in agriculture and food production, and within society and its evolving values and demands around food and where it comes from.
A time of transition
“Clearly, Ireland is such an important farming and exports country and that means farm animals, and their welfare, have a special place in Irish life, in rural life and within society. But there has been strong drive to more intensive farming in many sectors,” Prof. Mullan told Agriland.
“Society is changing, times are changing, priorities are different. Some of the animal welfare issues that have arisen more recently are not things that we would want if we were starting afresh.
“So, ultimately, it is going to be in a time of transition that we are being called on to increase welfare, be more climate-friendly and open to other environmental positives that will be on the agenda,” she added.
As per the strategy, entitled Working Together for Animal Welfare: Ireland’s Animal Welfare Strategy 2021-2025, the government has set its sights on a number of areas.
Banning fur farming, increasing animal-rescue funding and addressing horse welfare issues are some of the areas to be looked at early on.
Longer-term, and in relation to farming, issues such as reducing the prevalence of tail docking in pigs; supporting the development of high-welfare outdoor pig and poultry production systems; and further enhancing the monitoring of welfare standards for all live animals exported will be addressed.
Main animal welfare issues
But what are the main issues, as Prof. Mullan sees them?
“There remains some real challenges with some elements of pig production such as the use of farrowing crates and some very unenriched environments for pigs.
“And, to some extent, the same is true for broiler chicken production and caged hens also.
“That is not to say that there aren’t issues with other sectors but these are different types of issues and, to some extent, you have to start with basic freedoms before you can move on.”
A starting point came in the form of a recent amendment to our Rural Development Programme earlier this year, which saw the investment ceiling available under the Pig and Poultry Investment Scheme (Targeted Agricultural Modernisation [TAMS] II) increased from €80,000 to €200,000.
This included some additional animal welfare conditionality.
According to the strategy, the DAFM will ensure that ‘One Health, One Welfare’ objectives are “central to Ireland’s approach to the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and under the Rural Development Programme, will introduce measures to support industry so that it can reduce tail docking in pig production” for example.
Additional investments for calf welfare – previously available under the Calf Investment Scheme – have also been already made this year.
“Irish farming has got huge potential to raise animals to a higher standard,” said Prof. Mullan.
“I take my hat off to farmers who are doing an incredible job as it is. They work in very difficult conditions and markets and I am firmly of the opinion that farmers will farm according to how society wants them to farm, as long as they are justly rewarded for it.”
One way to help raise animals in accordance with higher welfare standards would be through higher welfare schemes, Prof. Mullan said.
“Bord Bia has done a fantastic job so far with its quality-assurance (QA) schemes. One of the things that I would like to see is much, much greater availability and use of higher-welfare farm-assurance schemes,” Prof. Mullan explained.
Once systems and mechanisms are in place, you can cater for people who do want higher-welfare products and want to pay farmers for their higher-welfare practices, she added.
Coming back to pig production, Prof. Mullan said that this is one priority area for her; where better standards can and should be introduced.
“Pigs are an incredibly efficient form of meat production but we have managed to do it in a way that is really lacking for the animals.”
According to Teagasc, the farrowing crate was originally introduced as a management tool in pig farming in the 1960s and is widely used today in Ireland. With this system, the sow is confined from about seven days prior to farrowing until piglets are at least 28 days old.
It “improves ease of management, allows higher stocking densities of sows, and reduces piglet mortality”, according to Teagasc.
Already across Europe, countries are banning this practice.
“If you think about it, a slatted pen has very limited enrichment for the animal and we know that these animals are, essentially, hardwired to root and forage.
“So even when we feed them as much food as we want them to eat, they still have this really strong, innate desire to root and forage. And they feel very frustrated if they are unable to exercise that,” said Prof. Mullan.
Just last week, a plenary session of the European Parliament voted to phase out caged farming in the EU by 2027. It was supported by all 14 Irish MEPs – with some conditions that adequate time and funding be provided for the transition – and would see the banning of cages for hens; pullets; broilers; quail; ducks; geese; rabbits; farrowing crates for sows; and individual calf pens.
In the short-term, high-welfare outdoor systems for pigs – and, indeed, poultry – which are mentioned in the strategy, may not be feasible, but it is “really important to explore that and explore the potential”.
“Done well, those systems do offer the greatest welfare potential but I do think that indoor, free-farrowing, deep-bedded, enriched systems can provide good welfare too. There is a halfway house that could be acceptable for the animals, and society also,” Prof. Mulllan said.
Issues such as these are not exclusive to Ireland – countries all around the world are facing similar challenges and questions around animal welfare.
“We are lucky that we can build on innovations and research that already exists.”
We should also regularly be checking in with society to see what it is they want from their food-production systems, she said.
Commenting on the caged-farming campaign brought to Europe by the European Citizens Initiative, Prof. Mullan said:
“We can’t encourage systems that are in accordance with societal values unless we know what those values are.”
She would like to see greater societal engagement in this whole area, she said.
Within the strategy, there is an emphasis on monitoring welfare standards of “all live animals exported” – including calves.
Prof. Mullan commented:
“There has been a big expansion of the dairy sector in recent years and it feels like we need to take a little step back now. Essentially, we have two animals – the beef and dairy animal. The calves aren’t great for rearing for meat so the home market isn’t so interested in them and they go abroad.
“There are two main issues, one is around the actual care and transport of the animals – both in Ireland and while they are being transported.
“It can be a pretty arduous journey, it can take a long time, and these are such young animals, with not much experience of the world. They haven’t built up much resilience – physically or mentally.
“For me, I believe that if you are going to transport animals, they are better transported ‘on the hook than on the hoof’.”
She said there needs to be more thought put into the welfare of these animals, whether for the domestic or export market.
Policy underpinning practice
In launching the animal-welfare strategy, Minister Charlie McConalogue, said there would be inter-agency and cross-sectoral support between the DAFM and other stakeholders – farming community and agri-food industry, veterinary professionals, researchers and educators.
In achieving its aims of delivering high animal-welfare standards, the strategy must be underpinned by policy and expertise and Prof. Mullan’s appointment strengthens this approach.