On the farm – Oxford Today Magazine

Professor Marian Dawkins of Oxford’s Zoology Department has been searching for the primeval hen. This may not sound very sensible, but her work observing jungle fowl in Whipsnade and in their native Thailand has given her much insight into how to improve the lives of food animals. More than a billion people worldwide derive their livelihoods directly from animals. We slaughter 35 million pigs, 500 million poultry, 5 million cattle and 5 million sheep every week. How do we reconcile the need to produce huge quantities of meat with the happiness of each individual animal?

The University Farm at Wytham is now home to the new Food Animal Initiative (FAI), a business whose ambition it is to take animal welfare benefits into commercially robust systems and to improve farm profits in the process. Roland Bonney, Ruth Layton, Malcolm Pye and Paul Cook took over the farm in October last year. The venture is a joint initiative between the FAI and the Zoology Department, with the latter contributing research at all levels: food safety, disease, animal welfare and behaviour, conservation, environmental monitoring, and farmland bird ecology.

All domestic animals have their origins in wild creatures, though, as Mr Bonney pointed out to me, ‘Mother Nature is not always a good welfarist’. As I am pondering this, his computer displays a graph showing levels of increasing domestication/intensification plotted against welfare. At first, animal welfare improves as we provide healthcare, hygiene, good nutrition and protection from predators. But as we become hell-bent on mass production, welfare declines. More animals are put into smaller barren spaces and bred for rapid growth. Productivity soars, growing by 4% a year globally, but the animals seem to suffer.

Apparently, most of us claim that we want to make life better for the animals in our care. As a lifelong vegetarian, I have met my fair share of nutters in the realms of animal welfare. But not at Wytham Farm. The FAI is highly pragmatic. ‘Let’s remove the rhetoric and introduce real change’, says Bonney. The farm is to be managed as a commercial operation with research conducted by professional biologists alongside. Funded by Tesco and McDonalds, supported by the RSPCA and working alongside large and family-scale commercial agriculture, the FAI could not be more plugged into the ‘real’ world. Malcolm Pye came from commercial agri-business management, Roland Bonney from sheep farming in Wiltshire and Australia, Ruth Layton from conducting veterinary consultancies on farms and Paul Cook from commercial broiler production and food-processing. ‘It’s useless if it’s not commercial’, says Professor Dawkins. ‘The last thing British farming wants is more regulations.’ ‘But can you really make being kind to animals pay?’ I ask. ‘Yes’ – Dawkins is emphatic – ‘if a chicken is scratched and bruised, the carcass has to be down-graded; if animals are suffering, their productivity is lower and the meat is not so good.’

The ultimate symbol of intensive agriculture must be the battery hen. When I was a child, we took some home at the end of their commercially useful life. For a week, none of them left their coop, despite the full summer and the lush vegetation of our safe, walled Hampshire garden. Then, one day one of them stuck its head out into the sunshine – and brought it abruptly back in again. But after a month, all six hens were running wild. They nested in the undergrowth, scratched and picked at the shingle paths and roosted in the Leylandii. Proving what? That you can take the hen out of the battery, and the battery out of the hen.

Since she began to study chickens 20 years ago, Professor Dawkins has demonstrated this in a more scientifically robust way. She has shown that the old adage about animals in cages knowing nothing else just isn’t true. Deep inside them, domestic animals know how to be wild. It’s etched in their DNA and bursts forth whenever we let it. Deciding which of their natural behaviours is essential for the animal’s welfare is difficult. Some things, such as allowing them to move around, seem obvious.

Professor Dawkins has created diagrams that show the pattern of movement of a hen when it stretches its wings, unconfined. When this is superimposed over the battery box, a truly pathetic picture emerges. But letting the animals out of the cages may not be enough to give them a good life. Free-range systems often resemble a kind of bird rave. Animals are packed together in a vast warehouse with a bar that supplies water and grain. But there is no music, no recreational drugs and the birds are expected to live in these conditions for twenty-four hours a day. Relatively few free-range broiler chickens actually make use of the outside fields provided. Professor Dawkins’s insight is that this may be because, being jungle creatures, they fear the wide open spaces, where predators can easily see them.

The FAI intends to set up a chicken utopia: birds running around in woodland glades, with trees over beak and earth under claw – a free-range system in which farmers can produce two crops at the same time: trees and chickens. Research projects will determine whether this system can pay by measuring production costs, bird quality, taste, health responses and predator problems. By observing their behaviour, they will also look at whether the chickens really like this lifestyle. Feather-pecking and cannibalism are common in free-range systems. Professor Dawkins has already shown that in natural situations hens spend up to 60% of their time pecking at the ground. If they are given something else to peck at, they are less likely to have a go at each other.

The FAI is very keen not to give the impression that, hitherto, farming methods have all been bad. During her consultancy days, Ruth Layton was asked by one farmer: ‘Are you telling me that what I have been doing all my life is wrong?’ Miss Layton replied that he was not wrong, but that with new understanding his son may be able to do things better. Mr Bonney is very earnest on this point: ‘We are looking at a culture of investment in change rather than a blame culture.’ The FAI will be taking a lead from farmers, asking them what they perceive to be the major welfare problems and thereby seeking to provide practical solutions.

The FAI also wants to ensure that the people who need to know about their research do get to hear about it. Two of the barns on the farm are to be turned into education centres, and school trips and courses for farmers, vets and managers are planned. There is a need to convince people of the necessity of the research. ‘A common attitude’, says Bonney, ‘is “if these animals are all going to be killed anyway, why bother?” My response is that we are all going to die, but that doesn’t mean we want to lead a miserable life beforehand!’

Breeding animals for farming can have horrifying results. Chickens that can’t stand up and cows that can’t give birth are repulsive by-products of selecting for favourable traits such as rapid growth and heavy muscles. The FAI is keen to develop genetic strains which don’t leave the animal invalided. In his previous job, Malcolm Pye was involved in the establishment of a strain of chicken that grows more slowly. Salers, a hardy breed of cow from the Massif Central, are currently being tested at Wytham for efficiency. ‘This breed never has trouble calving’, says Bonney, as he looks proudly around a barn of russet cows with their tiny calves, all less than five days old, sitting amongst the straw. Another thing under consideration is natural birthing, allowing females to find a place to have their young alone, away from the herd. With Wytham Woods behind, and 1,050 acres of farm around, there is the space to do that here.

Professor Dawkins is excited about the new FAI. ‘Some things are easy and cheap but make a huge difference to the animals’, she says. In another barn a herd of suckler cows are shifting their weight, gazing at us interestedly. ‘Its very common to have unused, wasted spaces on farms’, says Paul Cook. The FAI wants to let these adolescents run around outside, using a yard that is currently derelict. Cook points out a barn in which mothers and calves have been separated for weaning, but are housed next to each other. This, they believe, will make the process much less stressful – another good idea which needs confirming with data.

As we walk around the farm, Mr Bonney grabs a handful of wood chippings. The FAI has experimented with putting pigs, originally creatures of the forest, on this, rather than on straw. The response was apparently immediate, as overexcited piglets dug their noses into the new material. Such experiments aren’t just nice: the animal welfare measures may actually prevent pigs from biting each other’s tail off and spare the concomitant vet’s bill. Common practices in farming include ‘mutilations’, such as the de-beaking of chickens, castration and tail-docking. The FAI wants to discover whether these are in fact necessary measures, or whether there might be ways of making the process more comfortable for the animal.

Working alongside other expertise in the University can provide high-tech solutions to behavioural research. OxLoc, a spin-out company set up by a collaboration between zoologists, engineers and material scientists, has been satellite-tagging sheep in the fields. Sheep tend to like to cluster around particular areas and the FAI is to conduct studies to found out why in order that provisions can then be made to improve the lot of the sheep, and, as a result, increase production. In the Peter Medawar Centre (see OT 14.2) Dr Martin Maiden has genetically profiled Campylobacter, a major pathogen of humans and chickens. There are plans to use this knowledge fruitfully in a collaboration that will look at farm pathogens.

Many of these research ideas are already identified and pilot schemes are running, with four undergraduate projects and one and a half PhD studentships already planned at Wytham. The Department of Farming and Rural Affairs has invited the submission of a proposal to study the ‘chicken in trees’ concept, and there is a growing collaboration with farming businesses through the development of projects studying beef cattle and free-range egg production.

With the complexity of modern mass-farming, and the excitement and energy of the partners at the FAI, the potential here seems almost limitless. As I listened to the talk, of allowing families to stay together, the stress of not being able to take exercise, of preventative health care and natural birth, I couldn’t resist making analogies with modern human lives. Could it be that by an imperceptible twist this is a kind of study of animal behaviour that will tell us as much about ourselves as about the masses of nameless faceless animals which depend entirely on us and on whom we depend? Certainly, it will make your Sunday roast a little easier to swallow.