Cattle and sheep in Ireland are reared in an “extensive” system, which means they are outdoors in low stocking ratios with access to grass and only housed in the winter months. On the whole, this is ideal from a welfare standard and we can all sleep easily at night knowing that while that lamb shank at dinner tasted fantastic, the lamb that provided it had a fair shot at a decent outdoor life.
Pigs and poultry are a different matter. Both are as near to intensive farming as you can get in Ireland, and having been in poultry houses and seen how densely packed the birds are, I am compelled, despite the price difference to only buy free range chicken that has some kind of access to outdoor grazing and foraging.
Pigs have the worst situation of them all. Pig farming in Ireland is indoor, intensive and free range pork is still a tiny minority of the marketplace. Pigs are kept indoors in tiny pens their entire life and cannot live in a group, forage and do the intelligent pig stuff they like to do. Sows farrow (give birth) in metal stalls the length of their body with no room to move whatsoever, the piglets are kept away from the sow by a rail to stop her lying on them. If the sow was in a larger area she wouldn’t lie on them in the first place. If we kept our dogs this way there’d be a national uproar.
However under new EU animal welfare directives which will come into force at the end of 2011, both sows and hens will benefit from more animal friendly accommodation. Battery farming of hens in the EU will be entirely banned by 2012, so the infamous metal cage the size of an A4 sheet of paper will exist no more. Interestingly, in February of this year Poland campaigned to remove this ban or have it exempted for another five years but they were overturned.
Farmers in Ireland are at least going to get some help to comply with the new regulations in the form of 40% grants towards investments in new animal housing. To be fair, Irish farmers are regularly under pressure to comply with EU legislation that constantly alters and inforces new regimes such as the Nitrates Directive. However, when Ireland took on board the Nitrates Directive and complied with its purpose of keeping our waterways clean of agricultural run-off the plan worked.
Change can be costly but if it’s change that benefits the welfare of the animals we choose to raise for food, the environment and those who we share this planet with, we all benefit.