Animal welfare alone is not enough

Despite my best efforts, Lorayne cut the lawn in February. I was thwarted by the leap year, and I missed the 1st of March by a day.

The grass now knows it’s spring, and has leapt out of the ground as an instant reaction to being cut. I told her this would happen, but to no avail, we are now faced with regular cutting from now on unless we get the arctic predictions from the Met Office actually visiting us. I suspect that Alex Salmond is more likely to be getting a touch of that than the readers of the West Sussex Gazette.

I was in Brussels for two days last week, dealing with animal health and welfare matters on behalf of European farmers. The media frenzy over ‘Schmallenberg’ continues, and whilst it is a serious matter in Europe overall, and especially in Germany, in the UK it has so far affected less than 100 sheep flocks out of around 65,000. That does not make it any less serious for those affected, but it should be kept in proportion. It will be interesting to see if it dies out as we get into spring and the bulk of the lambing as some scientists expect; will cattle be affected as the spring calving season gets under way?

In Europe, the animal welfare band-wagon is gathering serious pace, and the MEPs who are much more vulnerable to pressure are pushing for the Commission to act. This fills me with dread; not because animal welfare does not need to improve across Europe (it certainly does), but because the Commission has such a poor track record. Having messed up completely the ‘welfare of laying hens’ directive, exposing countries which have conformed to unfair competition for their troubles and debt; the sow stall ban from the 1st of January next year will be worse, because many countries are saying quite openly that they can’t afford to comply; the Commission will carry on regardless, the UK and a few others will comply and we will be in danger of losing even more pig production abroad.

Why is that? I hear you ask. It is quite simple really. We are all citizens of this country, and most of us are also consumers – two very different things. As citizens (according to recent surveys) we are rightly concerned about both animal welfare and animal transportation. As citizens we rank the broiler chicken somewhere near the bottom of the welfare league (if I can use that word), other hens and pigs next, with dairy cows somewhere near the top; together with sheep and suckler beef cows. It is therefore rather odd that the intensive sector, white meats; chicken and pork, produces the vast majority of the food we all buy.

No surprise in reality, because as consumers, we behave very differently. We buy what we fancy, in the quantity we need, at a price we can afford. The price we can afford to pay for food competes with all the other daily needs, obligations and wants; a very tough and difficult balancing act, which precious few consumers can afford to ignore. All food is safe and nutritious, it is healthy in moderation, and there is so much choice; all competing for the consumer’s pound. The labels are not very clear, there is so much information; time is short and the children may be misbehaving, or the next chore is pressing one to get on.

It is however more than that. We choose not to spend more on food, because we want to spend some of the cash we save on treats and little luxuries; nothing wrong with that. It does however cut across our strongly held views as citizens concerning animal welfare. The RSPCA ‘Freedom Foods’ is a classic example of a ‘brand’ highlighting animal welfare, backed by a very high profile advertising campaign, supported by the best known and most credible welfare organisation, and unusually clearly labelled on the pack. Yet, in 18 years; the best 18 years of our lives (financially) which may never be repeated, only 7% of UK livestock are sold under the Freedom Foods logo. That is the reality of consumer power and the market.

As farmers we are well aware that some of the glitter is not gold, and the 30 million farmers across Europe are economic operators, facing reality every day. The reality that capital for new infrastructure needed for welfare improvements is not available or affordable very often. The reality that the much hyped success of free-range eggs still leaves it as the sector currently losing money and that halos do not pay bills. The reality that today’s added value is tomorrow’s commodity; I could go on. The consumer needs better quality in conjunction with better welfare in order to be persuaded to pay more; welfare alone is not enough it seems.

Driving through London on the 3rd of February, in an attempt to get home; I encountered unbelievable traffic, due to a bus having collided with, and badly injured a cyclist elsewhere in the city. I wrote about cyclists in London recently, and now we have the other serious menace on the London street; the London bus. Two hours after leaving Westminster, I had still not travelled very far, when, anxious to make some progress, I could see a car length available to me beyond the ‘yellow box’ at the traffic lights at Battersea Rise; which were green. As I moved forward, a bus pulled out from the kerb-side without as much as a glance or indication of doing so; it then occupied the space at the other side of the yellow box, which I had been aiming at, leaving me hanging out in the middle of the yellow striped box.

I was less than amused about this, but managed to at least not block the traffic crossing when the lights changed, and they thanked me for that with horns, flashing lights and gestures I didn’t understand! Unfortunately, the other day I received a letter with very clear photographs, showing my transgression, fining me £60 for being a public nuisance. I wrote an essay in return, along with £60 (to show willing), hoping for some compassion and maybe a ban on London buses; to no avail. I received a very polite letter back, repeating the Highway Code rules for yellow boxes (which I know), absolving the bus driver completely by not mentioning him, or his mate who had caused the traffic jam in the first place, making it very clear that I was responsible for my actions.

I am therefore for once, in complete agreement with Jeremy Clarkson, who believes that bus drivers believe themselves to be knights of the road, eco-warriors on a mission from God; a belief which has gone to their heads! Given that cyclists also believe that they are saving the planet and have right on their side; we have two groups of people (described by Clarkson as the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea) on a mission to collide with each other as they harass and bully mere car drivers out of the way. The result as we have now seen following a case in Bristol Crown Court; one member of the group in jail and a member of the other group in hospital; inevitable.

Gwyn Jones