Health versus natural behaviours in farm animals

Farmers and members of the public want animals to be both healthy and able to express their natural behaviours, according to research comparing the views of both groups.

There is also general agreement that when it comes to assessing the overall wellbeing, physical health and productivity of the animals, the level of health provision is most important.

The study, by researchers at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), looked at whether there were differences in the overall importance livestock farmers and the public give to health and natural behaviours.

It also looked at how these judgements are influenced by the extent to which health issues are minimised and natural behaviours promoted.

Generally, it has been believed that livestock farmers emphasise the importance of keeping their animals healthy and reducing stress, while members of the public are more likely to want farm animals to be able to exhibit their natural behaviours and have access to the outdoors. 

The study found there were more similarities than differences in the views of the two groups. 

In addition to wanting animals to be free from health issues and able to express their natural behaviours, the responses from both groups suggested that minimising health issues was seen to be a baseline requirement before any benefits from promoting natural behaviours were gained.

However, it found farmers judge situations where health issues are not minimised but natural behaviours are supported, more negatively than the public.

There was also much more variance among farmers in their attitudes to the importance of health and natural behaviours, depending on the sector, production system and farming background. 

Differences in attitudes among members of the public were also found, with demographic factors potentially playing a role. For instance, having a greater belief in animal mind (sentience) or being vegetarian, vegan or flexitarian increased the likelihood of highly rating natural behaviours as important.

The study is based on a survey of more than 800 members of the public across the UK, published in PloS ONE, and survey o168 farmers in the UK and Ireland, published in Frontiers in Animal Science.

Dr Belinda Vigors, a social scientist at SRUC and co-author of the study, said: “This study shows that although there are differences between farmers and members of the public, there are also some key similarities.

“Importantly, it is very clear both farmers and the public want farm animals to be both healthy and able to express their natural behaviours.

“The findings of the study are relevant to better understanding the expectations of farmers and members of the public and what they consider is important for animal welfare.”

The survey was funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS).

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About The Author

John Swire - Editor of Agronomist and Arable Farmer as well as responsibility for the Agronomist and Arable Farmer and Farm Business websites. After 17 years milking cows on the family farm John started writing about agriculture in 1998 and has since written for a variety of publications and has developed a wide circle of contacts within the industry. When not working John is a season ticket holder at Stoke City and also of late has become a fitness freak, listing cycling, swimming and walking as his exercises of choice.