8: Not So Free Range | Viva! - The Vegan Charity

8: Not So Free Range

Four years of campaigning with young people had worked and it now seemed the right time to broaden the approach and aim at adults also. I was appointed Campaigns Director of the Vegetarian Society and planned the organization’s (and my) first adult strategy, ‘Feeding You the Facts’. It was to be a five month campaign culminating in National Vegetarian Day on 2 October 1991.

‘Feeding You the Facts’ was linked to a major survey I commissioned from Bradford University on attitudes towards animal cruelty and diet. It was the biggest survey of its kind and showed that several factors are at work when people make the decision to become vegetarian. For adults, nine out of ten stated that animal cruelty and health made them change their diet. Eight out of ten said that saving the environment and world food resources were also important considerations. However, vegetarianism was growing most quickly amongst 11 to 18 year olds and they singled out concern for animals as the most important reason by far.

Low down on the list of concerns for many people, however, are two animals rarely linked to stories of abuse - sheep and beef cattle. Seemingly these are the creatures most left to their own devices in a largely free range environment. I knew this to be untrue and set out to prove it.

Sheep are suited to the dry, rocky land of hill country, being prone to foot diseases when kept on damp lowland. Despite their inherent unsuitability for living on low-lying land, however, much of the Midlands has been given over to sheep rearing, as has Sussex, Kent, Devon and many other unhilly counties. The life led by these lowland creatures is considerably different from those reared on the uplands, such as in Wales.

The closest sheep to me is one solitary cade (orphan) lamb called Emily who is the pet of a local farmer’s daughter. Emily defies all the ill-conceived judgements that you hear about sheep - nervous, jittery and distinctly stupid. She is bright, intelligent and behaves very like a puppy.

The contrast between Emily and the pathetic little creatures I saw on sale in a West Midlands cattle market was heartbreaking. A handful of them huddled together, shivering in the February cold, being prodded by prospective buyers blind to their plight. These frightened babies, no more than a few days old, selling for a few pounds each, are the direct result of an unbridled intensification in the sheep-meat industry.

Subsidies and science have allowed the size of the British flock to increase from about 34 million to 44 million animals in the decade up to 1992. The UK is the EC's biggest sheep meat producer (about 350,000 tonnes in 1993), followed by Spain (250,000) and France (80,000) . However, more than 40 per cent of UK sheep and sheep meat was exported in 1993 as the British taste for lamb has been declining since 1989. As the market for lamb approaches saturation point, so the competition amongst producers intensifies and the price drops. Producers’ overriding concern is to maintain the same rate of profit and the only variable in the equation is the sheep. So they have to be made more productive.

It is precisely the same process which drives down wages of human workers - the imperative to maintain profits regardless of the cost to animals, humans or the environment. It’s called the free market, formerly known as capitalism, and it is a reality which those who care about animal rights, human rights and the health of our planet will eventually have to face if they want to change things.

The sheep which have fallen foul of this ethos would naturally produce one lamb after the worst of the winter has passed - in March or even April in the northern hemisphere. But as one producer tries desperately to steal a march on the others and sell at higher prices by offering the first ‘new season’s lamb', so the ewes are manipulated into giving birth earlier in year - often in December. An incredibly sick logic then itches into play - as they have given birth so early, why not get them to do it again? That is now the direction in which sheep farming is moving, producing three pregnancies every two years.

By the use of trickery, the ewe is deceived into ovulating earlier than she would do naturally. Contraceptive sponges are inserted into her vagina for a set period and then removed. Combined with doses of hormones obtained from pregnant mares, they provoke the ewe’s body into beginning the process which would naturally be triggered in the autumn. When you add to the equation the squalid conditions in which the mares are kept tethered and immobile, the whole trade becomes a rather shameful and depressing tale.

Also, there has been a sudden glut of orphan lambs as a consequence of this rush to intensify production. Through all the usual methods of increased feed, selective breeding and the liberal use of drugs such as hormone implants, producers have turned the solitary lamb into twins and increasingly triplets. Unfortunately a ewe has only two teats and it is this which has led to the glut of orphans - this and an increasing number of dead ewes.

The old-fashioned way in which a ewe whose lamb had died was persuaded to accept an orphan from another ewe was rather gruesome but at least it was infrequent and involved no coercion. The dead lamb would be skinned and its fleece placed over the back of the orphan. With luck, the ewe would identify the smell of her dead lamb and accept the little newcomer as her own.

With the large-scale death of newborn lambs and the increase in triplets, such traditional methods have long since gone. Today, bereaved ewes are often forced into accepting orphan lambs by being held around their necks in stock-like devices while the lamb is put to their teats. The ewes can’t move, they can’t see the lamb that is suckling from them and the process can take as long as five days. It is probably exhaustion that wins in the end.

Over four million newborn lambs die every year in Britain, mainly from cold or starvation, some 20 per cent of all those born. In Australia, sheep nation of the world with its 135 million animals, high rates of mortality are considered normal, with 20 to 40 per cent of lambs dying at birth for the same reasons.

Most lowland sheep give birth in large sheds, being turned out to face the rigours of winter shortly afterwards. In upland areas, where the sheep are largely left to their own devices, they are under pressure for different reasons. Increased numbers of sheep are introduced onto scrubland where nutrition is at a premium, intensifying the struggle for survival. Human intervention in the form of shepherds is cut back and feed supplements are reduced. To meet market demands, efforts are being made to reduce the amount of fat on the animals through selective breeding and genetic manipulation - the one thing which helps them survive the cold when so much else is pitched against them. So it’s hardly surprising that the highest proportion of lamb deaths takes place on the uplands.

Incidentally, one of the principal reasons offered by foxhunters for their offensive pastime is the need to protect newborn lambs from the predation of foxes. This is a fallacy. Even MAFF has dismissed the problem as 'insignificant' and in a poll carried out by one of the UK’s leading 'sport’ magazines, The Field, in April 1993, the 1000 farmers who responded to the survey showed that the number of lambs lost to foxes was only 1 per cent. As ever-increasing numbers of lambs die from the cold or are born dead, however, the more winter-hungry foxes will be accused of being the culprit.

One thing about the farming industry is that it operates on logic - but of a very short-term nature. With lowland sheeprearing, if the aim is to make ewes have as many lambs as possible and as often as possible, logic dictates that the easiest way to ensure it is to keep them indoors. And so the previously unthinkable concept of intensified, high-density factory sheep farming is under way.

With this goes the whole panoply of medical intervention as the health of the flock deteriorates with diseases such as contagious foot rot and gut infection, prolapses, blindness, mastitis, rotting teeth and viral diseases. According to a leading veterinary expert at Bristol University, Dr Gerard Coles, ‘The health of the British sheep flock is declining ... this is true for diseases caused by viruses, bacteria and ecto [skin] parasites.’

It also involves the cruel invasiveness of forced artificial insemination, where the ewe is spreadeagled upside-down on a rack while the ram’s semen is injected directly into her womb.

It requires the forced ejaculation of that semen by hand or by inserting an electrical probe into the anus of the ram, a procedure which can afterwards leave the ram writhing in agony.

It includes the regular practice of sending ewes to slaughter when they are almost full-term pregnant - for the extra bit of cash which the weight of the unborn lambs adds to them.

Then there is the practice of mutilating young rams by attaching tight rubber rings to their tails (to prevent ‘blow-fly strike’) and their testicles so that both wither and drop off. Or they might both be sliced off with a knife without anaesthetic. If you challenge almost any farmer about the cruelty of this practice, they will laugh at you patronizingly and assure you: ‘They don’t feel a thing!’ It has always been my ambition to find a male farmer who is contemplating a vasectomy and offer him my own, extremely permanent rubber ring version of the operation!

As to 'painless’, even the UK Government’s own Farm Animal Welfare Council doesn’t fall for that one: ‘There is no doubt that all methods of castration and tailing cause pain and distress.’ But they can do worse than that. If the castration ring is fitted too high it traps the urethra, making it impossible for the lamb to urinate. The outcome is inflammation, possibly tetanus, kidney failure and an extremely painful death. None of this is shown on Easter cards with their gambolling lambs. I think I might gambol if I had a tight rubber ring attached to my scrotum - if I had a scrotum.

Australian sheep farmers slice the skin and flesh around the sheep’s tail with a pair of shears, literally skinning it alive, without any anaesthetic. This brutal practice is known as 'mulesing’ and is meant to discourage blow-flies from laying their eggs, so causing fly-strike. Humane alternatives are available, but they take more time and effort. Again, money wins the day.

There is an irony to all this which is galling. Some 41 per cent, or £521 million out of £1.2 billion in 1993/4, of the income of sheep farmers in Britain comes from the public purse, from taxation, from you and I. The Farm Animal Welfare Council stated in its Report on the Welfare of Sheep in April 1994 that ‘Most hill farmers and many lowland sheep keepers would be incapable of financial survival if [subsidies] were withdrawn.’

All red meat producers receive Government subsidies of one kind or another - subsidies for a trade which is damaging and cruel and which we don’t even need. Cast your mind back to the days when coal mines were closed and steel works and shipyards. They were 'uneconomic’ and ‘undeserving of public subsidy’. But farming, now that’s a different story. I wonder why?

But even with the huge public subsidies, meat production is on the edge of profitability and so the ratchet of production has continually to be notched up. That means even greater intensification.

One of the most chilling sights I have ever seen was a shot in the Channel 4 TV film Jungleburger, transmitted in 1987. The airborne camera shows dozens of cattle grazing, but as the shot zooms out you can see they are confined in a square with earth ramparts. The camera continues to zoom out and shows another, similar, square alongside the first, and then another and another until the squares fill the whole landscape, stretching away into the distance in a huge, uninterrupted chequerboard - hundreds of squares containing tens of thousands of cattle. They are ‘feedlots’ for beef production, a system perfected in the US, where there are 40,000 of them but just 200 contain nearly half the cattle in the States. Of course Britain is copying the idea and the first British feedlot was set up in 1987. Big Farm Weekly reported in November 1989 that this feedlot caused a public outcry when it carved up the Lincolnshire wolds, on the grounds of animal welfare and environmental damage. The 2,500 cattle were kept outdoors all year with no shelter or grazing. They were fed chicken manure and vegetable waste matter. After one year the local authority found the farm guilty on water pollution charges. Not an encouraging picture for the future.

The feedlot cows are given high-protein foods on the principle that it is easier to bring food to the animals than take animals to the food. It also makes it possible to rear more animals on a small area of land than grazing would allow.

Like sheep, cattle have always been seen as the most free and least interfered-with creatures, and for some that is still true. Suckler cows are allowed to keep their young with them, sometimes from birth until slaughter at two years old, grazing on open land in the summer and developing some of the normal maternal and herd relationships. But the UK is not a great producer of beef, importing most of its requirements from other countries, including Brazil, which grazes cattle on despoiled rainforest land.

Around two thirds of the beef we do ‘grow’ in the UK, like veal, is a by-product of the dairy industry. According to MAFF, between 20 and 25 per cent of dairy cows need to be replaced each year, yet each cow produces a calf every year. There is obviously a super-abundance of calves.

Some of the cows will probably have been made pregnant with the semen of a bull with strong milk-producing genes, while for the remainder it will have been taken from a beef bull. This requires a series of judgements when the calves are born.

Female calves that resemble their milking mothers may be kept to replenish the herd; others that resemble the beefier male may be kept or sold on for low-quality beef products. Similarly with the male calves, those that resemble their mother will be destined for the Continental veal crates, while those that are beefier will be castrated to become beef bullocks. In all cases they will be separated from their mothers as soon as they have drawn off the disease-preventing colostrum from her udders and the milk supply proper has started. Herds of orphan beef calves will be grazed together. Increasingly, however, they are being kept in large sheds, crammed together, dehorned and kept on concrete or slatted floors. The only reason why beef lots are not widespread appears to be the poor quality of the beef produced in the UK.

However, modern scientists are not to be defeated and the old devil logic comes into play again. If the reproductive rate of cows can’t be increased, then increase the size of the calf! This has been achieved in Belgian Blue cattle by introducing a double-muscling gene which has the great advantage of increasing muscle growth in the rear of the cow, the part which contains most of the prime cuts and where the money is made. With all gene games, however, there is usually a quid pro quo and in the case of the Belgian Blue it is a reduction in the size of the pelvis and a narrowing of the pelvic canal. The result is that heifers can often no longer give birth naturally and are condemned to a lifetime of Caesarean sections, perhaps as many as 10.

Just as in humans, repeatedly cutting open the abdominal cavity is bound to become a painful and distressing process. With each subsequent incision, the scar tissue becomes thicker and proves more reluctant to heal. Professor John Webster, Head of the Department of Animal Husbandry at Bristol University, is in no doubt about its effects:

Although a Caesarean section may prove less painful at the time than a natural birth, there are the questions of recovery from the fairly radical surgery of the abdominal cavity. There is also the high probability of producing adhesions within the cavity following repeated surgery. And by analogy with humans, abdominal adhesions are very painful indeed.

However, research is still continuing. Professor Peter Street, Head of the Department of Agriculture at Reading University, has pioneered the process of taking eggs from a high quality cow at the abattoir, fertilizing them in a test tube with semen from a selected beef bull and then implanting the resultant embryos in a surrogate cow mother under epidural anaesthetic. As he sees it:

The problem with cattle in general is that they have one calf a year, which means that you have to spread a very heavy overhead reproductive cost over one unit of calf production. Now, if by implanting more than one embryo we can increase the litter size so from time to time we get two calves, then we’re halving the reproductive overhead cost, so that is major efficiency in livestock production.

By this method, low-quality cows, possibly near the end of their lives, can bear two prime beef calves. If, of course, the cow is unable to give birth naturally to the heavyweight twins, there is no great loss to the farmer if the delivery is by Caesarean section and the mother killed. It is a rapidly growing system, with some 14,000 cows being impregnated in this way in 1991, and is heralded as a breakthrough:

In effect, with this implanted, designed embryo, if we are able to manipulate the feeding system, we can design the whole carcass from embryo to plate to meet a particular market niche. The challenge for the agricultural sector is to produce for the food industry raw material which is of constant specification so that when they cut it up, pack it, put it through their cooking regimes, or quality control regimes, or portion preparation regimes, they get predictable yields of product which are brandable and give constant eating quality.

Yet there are those of us who believe the fundamental concern of anyone who works with animals should be to safeguard their welfare and avoid all possible pain and suffering. It is we who have taken them from the wild, who have destroyed their habitat and through manipulation of their genes turned them into unviable travesties of living creatures. What we are doing to these animals in order 'to meet a particular market niche’ is, I believe, dehumanizing and brutalizing, both to those responsible and to those who relish the 'constant eating quality’ but ignore the pain in which their pleasure is conceived.

No, it isn’t all sunlit summer meadows for either cows or sheep - but then, you didn’t really expect it to be, did you?