I read with interest a magazine article concerning the row that is developing between farmers and the RSPCA.
To put it into context for those that didn’t see it, a feature on BBC Countryfile regarding the decline in hedgehog numbers generated a question on Twitter from Gareth Wyn Jones, a hill sheep farmer, author and some time television celebrity from North Wales. He asked whether there was any link between an increase in the badger population and the decrease in hedgehog numbers, a perfectly reasonable question. But this was the RSPCA’s response: “No evidence of badger population impacting on the hedgehog – standard lazy response from a farmer facts important.” That was David Bowles, the head of public affairs at the RSPCA.
I know that Gareth Wyn Jones holds some fairly strong views and can be fairly outspoken, but he does stand up for the farming industry and maybe we could all learn a lesson from him. Unsurprisingly such an arrogant response from the RSPCA stirred up quite a lot of ill feeling and angry responses from other farmers and justifiably so. This highlights the growing disconnect between farmers and the RSPCA and it also ignores the fact that there is some evidence to indicate that in areas where badgers have been culled, hedgehog numbers have increased. “Counts of hedgehogs more than doubled over a five year period from the start of badger culling, whereas hedgehog numbers did not change where there was no badger culling,” says “Impacts of removing badgers on localised counts of hedgehogs, April 2014,” a DEFRA funded study and report.
OK, I accept that this was only a small study, but one can’t ignore the facts (facts important?): badgers do predate on hedgehogs and the two species do compete for food. And I’m sure that if one digs hard enough one could find trial evidence indicating a contrary conclusion. But what about a bit of balance? Surely the RSPCA and livestock farmers – who obviously do not share all their objectives – should have a common goal with regard to farmed livestock, i.e. the maintenance of a high level of animal welfare.
So how come we have reached a point where generally the two sides have polarised? Personally that point arrived when, a few years ago, I received a phone call one evening from an RSPCA inspector, who calmly told me that he had been to inspect my sheep and that they were perfectly fit and well looked after – really something that I was perfectly well aware of and did not need someone from the RSPCA telling me. On further questioning it transpired that he had received a complaint from a member of the public that my sheep were short of grass. Surprise, surprise: it was the middle of winter (and this was in the days when we had winters and grass stopped growing). But this ignored the fact that the small group of ewe tegs had access to a hay rack full of (good) hay and molasses feed blocks (which he also kindly pointed out to me, just in case I had forgotten).
I didn’t have any problems with the RSPCA or anyone else inspecting my sheep and still don’t. What really annoyed me (a bit of an understatement) was that this guy had the arrogance – just because he had a uniform and a tin badge – to think that he had the right to enter my land and inspect my sheep, without any prior consultation (he had my phone number), without my authority and, as far as I am aware, without observing any appropriate biosecurity procedures, bearing in mind that my flock has a high health status. I pointed out to him firmly and, considering the circumstances, quite politely, that he had no right of entry, and that if he had contacted me first I would have been quite happy to meet with him and pen the sheep for his inspection. Even then I got the distinct impression from the tone of the conversation that he still thought that he was in the right and certainly did not get any apology. A host of subsequent events have not led me to alter my view, but only confirm it.
I can remember not so many years ago a situation where whenever a new RSPCA inspector arrived in the area I would be contacted to arrange a couple of “familiarisation” days at Hadlow College, so that they were able to develop some basic skills in handling farm livestock; plus, probably more importantly, acquire a reasonable and realistic understanding of the context in which commercial livestock production had to operate. But unfortunately, these requests gradually stopped.
The RSPCA now seems to be pursuing its own agenda, not all of which is to do with the welfare of animals. When I had regular contact with RSPCA inspectors, from what I can recall, they came from a host of different backgrounds, including farming. I suspect now that the majority of them have been spawned by the explosion in the “animal care” industry, many of whom seem to have a rather distorted view of animal welfare which is often heavily tainted with anthropomorphism.
I have no issues with animal welfare: I like to think that my sheep are very well looked after and that I maintain a very high standard of both health and welfare. But this does have to be taken in a commercial context: sheep producers need to make a profit (one hopes). This does not excuse poor levels of welfare and there should not be any (deliberate) significant compromise in welfare standards regardless of the situation. There are welfare lines that should simply not be crossed.
But I would not pander to my sheep in the same way as I would our pet cat or dogs. I have recently spent more in vets bills sorting out an eye problem in our old working collie bitch than the cost of two good ewe tegs and have been willing (if not happy) to do so. Had she been a sheep then some hard commercial decisions would have needed to be made. But this does not mean that I care any less about the welfare of my sheep. Welfare is not totally objective. It is a spectrum in which there is a significant degree of subjectivity and all parties really need to recognise this. Dogmatism serves no useful purpose.
Isn’t it time that we had a little bit of common sense injected into the situation? As an industry we should be working with welfare organisations, particularly as we are likely to see more welfare legislation post Brexit. But comments such as those from Mr Bowles serve only to alienate livestock producers and, I’m sure, many others working in sectors that involve the commercial breeding, rearing and management of animals (other than farmed livestock), and simply presents an unnecessary barrier to meaningful dialogue.