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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway: towards a new welfare state for farm animals

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Guest post, Payments to improve animal health and welfare
Dyer's greenweed and resting cattle Genista tinctoria Hampshire
Copyright Natural England/Chris Gomersall

In this guest post, Dr. Julia Wrathall shares her views on the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. Julia is an expert in farm welfare and served as the RSPCA's Chief Scientific Officer. She helped to shape species-specific priorities through co-design.

My connection with animals started early in life. We had family pets and I soon became fascinated by the farmed and wild animals that surrounded me whilst growing up in rural Hampshire.

Arable farming ancestors and relatives who farmed beef cattle and ‘dabbled’ in pigs meant I always felt an affiliation with the farming community.

But I well remember the moment I decided I wanted to do something tangible for farm animal welfare.

As an agriculture student in the late 1980s, I visited a pig breeding unit which used the sow stall system. Back then, they were legal.

Seeing the animals so confined and restricted in their movement and behaviour had a profound effect on me.

In fact, the experience shaped my entire career.

I soon joined the RSPCA Farm Animals Department. In the almost 30 years since, I've encouraged many people to adopt evidence-based improvements in farm animal health and welfare.

What I've observed is that to bring about change, a practical, properly supported alternative needs to be presented.  Working together is also vital to success. There must be a common goal, opportunities to talk openly and respect for others’ expertise.

In this post, I'll share my thoughts on Defra’s farm animal welfare plans. I will also describe how co-design is shaping the approach.

The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway

In recent years, various sector-based and national initiatives have improved animal protection laws, attitudes and practices. These efforts have made the UK a world leader in many areas of animal welfare.

Growth in the market for higher welfare products has also led to improvements, including through farm assurance and retailer schemes.

But relying on market forces to bring about change has its limitations.

It can leave farmers exposed to the vagaries of an unpredictable environment. It does little to address the fact that farmers face economic constraints. Uncertainties surrounding the sustainability and unintended consequences of change also remain.

The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway addresses these challenges. It will help farmers progress animal health and welfare. It also offers potential for better marketing opportunities. 

Its multi-layered framework, overseen by the government, links all relevant sectors.

For the first time, targeted funding will support and reward both initial and on-going improvements in the health and welfare of England’s farm animals.

As a first step, funding is being made available for on-farm Annual Health and Welfare Reviews. Farmers can choose their own vets.

Future funding through grants and endemic disease control programmes will support changes to buildings, infrastructure and husbandry practices.

Also, a ‘payment by results’ initiative could help with the costs associated with some higher welfare practices.

After gathering initial views on welfare issues, Defra hosted a series of species-specific virtual workshops to help design certain elements. I participated in the meat chicken and pig meetings to shape the species-specific priorities. Farmers, vets, food industry representatives, scientists and Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) were also involved.

Welfare priorities and their importance

It was reassuring to find that opinions were remarkably similar amongst the varied stakeholders about which issues should be considered top priority for the first phase of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. The views expressed have been well reflected in the initial set of priorities.

It is felt that these priority areas offer the best opportunities for improving farm animal health and welfare using this kind of support.

Some, such as lameness, cover both health and welfare. Others cut across all sectors. These include stockmanship, which has a huge influence on health and welfare in all species. Grants for training will support this.

The welfare priorities may have wider benefits too. For example, some have potential to reduce emissions through improved production efficiencies resulting from better health and welfare.

There’s an aim to make interventions as near to emission-neutral as possible, but trade-offs may be needed where there are particularly large welfare improvements to be gained.

Early engagement from eligible farmers is essential. If this is achieved, the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway has the potential to transform the livestock farming landscape by bringing tangible, sustainable benefits to all - farmers, food industry, consumers, government and most importantly, to the welfare state of many millions of farm animals, now and in the future.

These species-specific priorities will feed into each funding strand. They’ll guide ongoing development of the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway. They will influence, for example, the veterinary advice given, data collected, and capital grants offered.

Over time, government, alongside industry, will review and adapt priorities.

Animal welfare is a public good

The principle of paying ‘public money for public goods’, alongside official recognition that animal welfare is a public good, is a significant development.

It offers an opportunity to overcome some of the most intractable economic and ‘fear of failure’ barriers that hampered previous welfare improvements.

The framework can also help deliver other benefits, for trade, food security, public health, and the environment. 

There is scope to connect with national initiatives currently under consideration too. These include production method/welfare labelling of animal products. This will help to link farmers with consumers more effectively.

Responding to change

Returning to those sow stalls in my student days, it’s worth noting that even then, producers were already seeking to improve welfare by moving to loose-housed systems.

The will to improve has always been there.

But there are concerns about conversion costs and managing unfamiliar systems. There is scepticism about the public’s professed willingness to pay more for higher welfare products. There are worries about the competition from cheaper, lower welfare imports. All these pose barriers to change.

Ultimately, the UK banned sow stalls. But how much easier it would have been for farmers if there had been a framework providing support for conversion.

The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway helps address these issues. It rewards positive health and welfare results and in turn, participating farmers will be recognised for delivering a ‘public good’.

Of course there will be challenges ahead, but willingness to work together for a collective ‘good’ will help to keep things moving forward. 

If you'd like to ask me a question or leave a comment below, please do. The Animal Health and Welfare team and I will do our best to reply.

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  1. Comment by Rob Yorke posted on

    It's excellent that animal welfare is a 'public good' with more knowledge and financial help in the pipeline to adopt good practices.
    It is important to acknowledge, as you mention, there may be trade-offs with other 'public goods' - such as biodiversity habitat (runoff into watercourses, crow numbers attracted to feed etc) and use of vet medicines (impact on invertebrates) around free-range livestock.
    Overall, much of this is about social science (psychology) to instill confidence to enable change at the grass-roots.

    • Replies to Rob Yorke>

      Comment by AHW Pathway Team posted on

      Thank you for your support Rob. Please subscribe to the blog for the latest updates on our work. Best wishes, The AHW Pathway Team

  2. Comment by Roy Endacott posted on

    What we don’t need is duplication of assurance schemes and government policies. We need one or the other, not more red tape.
    I’ve already had to attend courses on medicines and injecting animal, with no recognition of 40 years of experience. 40 years of spraying crops and still I needed to go on a course to get the piece of paper.
    As a small farmer with 57ha and a low input system with 120 breeding ewes, I don’t qualify for many of the grants available for improvements. If you have to spend £3000+ to qualify for a grant you will disqualify a lot of small family farms. Always aimed at the big units.
    Just my thoughts/feedback

    • Replies to Roy Endacott>

      Comment by AHW Pathway Team posted on

      Thank you for your feedback Roy. We are looking at how we can harness the good work of existing assurance schemes and policies, then support activity that builds upon these, so that we can achieve further improvements in animal health and welfare. We want to avoid duplication, so will not pay for things that producers already do as part of such schemes.

      The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway aims to be as accessible to farmers as possible. We have already lowered the minimum grant threshold for the Farm Equipment and Technology fund from £3000 to £2000 in response to industry feedback. As well as keeping this threshold under review, the team is also currently investigating additional measures we can take to ensure that farmer participation in the Pathway is as broad as possible while ensuring value for money.

      With thanks, The AHW Pathway Team

  3. Comment by Robin Horton posted on

    do you think the cut off number for the minimum herd size is sensible in the longer term. yes it focusses resources initially on the largest breeders and holdings but so many of our farms are small enterprises with mixed holdings. excluding them from the scheme to access funded vet visits and training i believe is short sighted and I would hope this will change in the policy over time.

    • Replies to Robin Horton>

      Comment by AHW Pathway Team posted on

      Thank you for your comment Rob. We agree that this will be a good start to the Animal Health and Welfare Pathway, with the aim of moving towards universal participation as we progress.

      We will confirm any future updates to eligibility on the blog.

      Best wishes, The AHW Pathway Team

  4. Comment by Ro posted on

    It would be good to reward farmers who operate "closed herds", especially through TB compensation

    • Replies to Ro>

      Comment by AHW Pathway Team posted on

      Thank you for your comment Ro. Defra's TB team are currently exploring options for using the compensation scheme to incentivise and reward TB risk reducing practices. We will post any updates on the blog in future.
      Best wishes, The AHW Pathway Team

  5. Comment by James Fanshawe posted on

    A small herd with disease is a danger to all neighbours. So the size criteria for grants should not exist.

    • Replies to James Fanshawe>

      Comment by AHW Pathway Team posted on

      Thank you for your comment James. The Animal Health and Welfare Pathway does not have a minimum herd size criteria in place for grant applications - these will be to support capital investments. However, there is a minimum grant threshold for applications which applies to all farms, regardless of size, to ensure we deliver value for money.

      The Annual Health and Welfare Review offer will initially be available for commercial dairy, beef, pig and sheep farmers (with more than 50 pigs, 20 sheep or 10 cattle in total) in England who are currently eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). We will gradually broaden this eligibility, with the prospect of universal participation in future, as we know this is important for successful control of endemic diseases.

      We hope this helps answer your query and will provide any future updates to eligibility on the blog.

      With thanks, The AHW Pathway Team

  6. Comment by Rosemary posted on

    When will the new AHW grant scheme be available please? We are on the SFI pilot and a dairy farm

    • Replies to Rosemary>

      Comment by AHW Pathway Team posted on

      Hello Rosemary,

      Animal health and welfare capital grants, disease eradication and control programmes are planned for 2023.

      We started testing the first annual health and welfare reviews in September and we’ll steadily increase these by invitation before opening to eligible keepers in late 2022.

      Best wishes,
      The AHW Pathway Team

  7. Comment by Anthony Howe posted on

    As a non profit charitable trust, the British Breeds Revival Trust is
    promoting the concept of a national network of small herds/micros dairies across the country utilising native dairy breeds that are proven better adapted in regenerative or conservation grazing systems. These smaller-size family-scale farms will provide starter opportunities for new entrants focussing on direct selling via farm shops and delivery rounds. the BBRT would like these open farms to be beacons of excellence and models of the highest standards of animal welfare thereby restoring the damage done to the public image if farming by factory style intensive farming. Is AHW open to partnership working with those who are willing to demonstrate best practice?


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