Monday, 9 July 2012

The Welfare of the Farmer and his Animals

The ears of our winter barley are turning rapidly into that golden harvest yellow and thoughts turn to trimming gateways and readying harvest machinery for the pending mad rush. 
The rooks have also discovered that the barley grains are firming as they have started trampling some of our crops to get the seed. I can usually turn a blind eye to a limited amount of damage, but this year they are proving to be very persistent and have made the grave mistake in choosing a corner of a field too near to my house where their noisy presence makes them the more conspicuous. 
The rook’s head and beak is something to behold. The beak itself is shaped perfectly like a “Dibber,” the implement that we use in the garden to plant our bean and other vegetable seeds. I am sure that the early agriculturalists were inspired by this mighty bird’s beak when they designed that first wooden planter that we still use today. They too would have been frustrated by this bird’s tenacity and equipment in extricating their freshly planted seed and no doubt deduced that if the rook’s natural tool was the right shape and size to pull seed out of the ground, then a replicated design should also be just-the-ticket for planting the seed and thus the “Dibber” was born.
The rook’s head has also been further modified by mother nature in the way that she has understood that feathers going all the way to the beak would only get muddy in less than perfect “dibbing” conditions and so she has given our rook scaly skin at the base of the beak to enable additional penetration without the inconvenience of soiled feathers. It is a truly remarkable and well adapted bird.
When the damage to my barley got to about half an acre I felt able to quantify the damage in pounds, shillings and pence to make a financial case for shooting the culprits to my vegetarian daughter who although still protesting was able to understand my dilemma as even she could see that half an acre’s damage was visually upsetting given the amount of time and effort she had seen me putting into growing the stuff. I did however find it more difficult to explain to her that to keep the killing down to a minimum I would have to display the victim in a way that would warn it’s fellow feeders that I mean’t business.
The corvid family are some of our most intelligent arable birds which makes them extra wary of a farmer with his gun, making them more difficult to shoot than your average game bird. Seeing one of their number being shot upsets them but they will eventually come back to the scene for more food within a short space of time and you will have to get back out there. The trick to keeping them away is to string the culprit up between two sticks as an example to the others and because they are intelligent they keep away. 
As a sentient human being understanding the fact that the corvid registers a degree of anxiety on seeing this crucifixion, causes me to question the act. I am unable to just walk away from the scene without justifying my actions and the reason why I or any other farmer who has respect for the living creatures on his or her farm can round the argument is partly due to the fact that dealing with life and death on our farms on a day to day basis to protect our crops and produce for the meat eaters of this country to enjoy is that we are all to a degree brutalised.
From an early age I have shot, gutted and jointed rabbits for the pot; loaded animals on trailers and taken them to market for slaughter; shot game for sport, then plucked, drawn, roasted and eaten them. 
This brutalisation seen in a positive light not only enables me to feed my family and sleep at night, it also enables us as farmers to be able to provide meat for the buying public without troubling them with seeing animals loaded onto a trailer and taken to the abattoir to be slaughtered. It also saves the NHS millions of pounds every year in counseling fees in not having to deal with a load of farmers suffering from PMST - Post Market Stress Disorder. This enables us to turn around and do the whole thing again the next week without having an emotional break-down.
In other everyday situations the dulling of these senses enables our fireman to arrive at the scene of an accident and be able to cope and in the extreme, allows our soldiers to return to the battlefield without deserting.
The difficulty arises when we become so dull to the experience that our judgement takes us beyond what is not only unacceptable to the general public who haven’t been through our whole desensitising experience, but also crosses the boundaries of respecting the accepted checks and balances of animal welfare.
Back in the early eighties I worked for a few months on an intensive pig farm when tethering was legal. Tethering the sows mean’t that day in day out they wore a canvas band or girth that went around their bodies just behind the shoulder with a metal chain at the bottom of the girth chaining them to the floor, meaning that they could stand up, lie down, eat, and that was all. My initial reaction on my first day was that the system was cruel, but it was amazing how quickly I accepted it for what it was and looking back at it now, my ability to justify it in my own mind so readily was the most shocking element of the experience.
When faced with any system of raising livestock where farm animals are kept for what they produce or are slaughtered to provide us with meat, is that our first reaction to the animal’s situation is usually the most humane. Our difficulty as farmers is when you have been brought up seeing these systems from an early age, we have in fact already been desensitised to a degree. 
Given that this is the case for most of us, the only way that we as an industry can check ourselves is to listen to those who are able to consider what we do objectively and strike a balance where not only animal welfare is judged to be humane but as importantly, those who work from farms to slaughterhouses are equipped to behave in a way that ensures that they can clearly disseminate what is humane and what is cruel. Any system that does not fully address both issues equally, will never be able to deliver the animal welfare standards that we farmers, our customers and our animals deserve.
For the National Farmers Union website

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