Meet Management: Practical welfare

They look like a large pair of black sunglasses, but put them on and you are transported to a tunnel vision world, viewed through two tiny holes. Apparently this is what cattle see and it may give a better understanding of how they react when being transported and moved from farm to lairage to abattoir.

Animal welfare expert Miriam Parker uses them to give stockmen, abattoir workers in fact anyone involved with handling livestock a practical demonstration of what cattle actually see and how their limited vision makes them react to movement. Parker has done as much as and probably more than anyone to improve animal welfare and handling in the UK. Now an agricultural scientist, she runs Livestockwise, providing specialist advice on animal production, handling, transport and slaughter, with a particular emphasis on welfare and quality assurance. She says: "Animal welfare is correct for meat quality, it's correct for efficiency and speed (in moving livestock) and it's correct for safety. This isn't rocket science, it's a win-win situation if you do the job right."

In the 1990s, while she was technical director with the Humane Slaughter Association, for whom she worked for 13 years, Parker helped pioneer training and education in animal welfare techniques, many of the principles now being in place in the UK. She now spends much of her time working with companies in China, India and Brazil, helping to improve their animal handling methods. Projects range from redesigning abattoirs to make them more animal welfare-friendly and more efficient to operate, to creating a set of playing cards that include tips on animal handling.

Teaching people best-practice in handling livestock is her aim. "If a guy is not told anything different than to hit an animal, do you blame him?" she asks. A host of training initiatives to help abattoir workers and livestock hauliers has followed. As a trained scientist, she says another of her philosophies is distilling research and applying it in practical situations.

She admits that some welfare organisations may like to make a career out of flying around Europe talking about animal welfare, but she calls herself a 'can do' person, who is happiest looking at what actually happens in abattoirs and then making improvements.

The job can sometimes be as emotionally challenging today as it was 25 years ago. Even in the past few years, she has seen unacceptable practices in some parts of the world, including live hoisting of animals. "And you say 'Right, what can we do about it?' It either strengthens you, or you walk away," she says.

At the heart of Parker's method is the fact that calm animals can be handled more easily, quickly and safely. Courses that have been set up and run by her for the industry are deliberately kept relatively short and simple. Some livestock handlers do not have English as a first language and they struggle with reading and writing. So courses last for three-and-a-half hours and are participative and interactive "asking lots of questions and getting answers back" is how she describes it.

Parker returns three weeks later to check how much the participants have learnt. "We cannot check the competency that has to be done on the floor. But, by checking the theory, management know that the team have been told the key things and that they have demonstrated that they know what the key things are."

Some may argue that the teaching is not sufficiently advanced, but Parker says that getting the simple things right is what matters, and that is what makes people responsible.

Parker has also expanded into lairage design and troubleshooting problems in existing plants. There is not one main or common problem with abattoirs, she says because they are all designed in different configurations. However, the introduction of round pens and curved raceways that are so much more sympathetic to accommodating animal behaviour circles and curves reflect the way cattle naturally group in a field means things are significantly better than 25 years ago. Good facilities involve systems without right angles or stopping points so the animals keep moving.

If cattle are kept waiting for more than 10 minutes, their heart rates rise, with consequences for meat quality and, possibly, for welfare and safety too. Lairage systems should be matched to production line speeds and cattle group sizes.

Much of the best lairage design has stemmed from work done by the recognised doyen of meat production plant systems, the American Professor Temple Grandin. Parker, who studied Grandin's methods when on a Nuffield Farming Scholarship, has had to adapt her principles in the UK, because of square footage. "In America they have acres of space," she says.

The principles of good handling systems revolve around three things: people, animals and facilities. "They have to work together," says Parker. "You cannot have good facilities and poor people; it doesn't work. Give me good people and practices any day they'll make it work."

So where are the best abattoir facilities? "Everywhere you go, you will have top and bottom leagues," she says. "I have slaughterhouses in India that outstrip some of the ones here. On a country-by-country basis, it can be incredibly difficult. From an animal welfare point of view, what is a good abattoir what it looks like or how it works? Out in places like India and China, they may not have sparkling facilities, but they bring the animals in really quietly and, even though they might not be stunning them, the process is all over in minutes."

Parker cites a project in India where a group concerned with the ethical treatment of animals had been arguing with an abattoir for 18 months over the way forward. Parker was brought in to resolve the issue. She identified what the budget was for making the biggest improvements to animal welfare and drew up a plan that gave the animals water, shelter, and shade by the economic method of planting trees, rather than an expensive new building. A gravity-fed line, rather than a complicated system that workers could not operate, was introduced and the changes now form the model for other abattoirs in India.

Her expertise on animal behaviour and plant systems means she has been invited to sit on a host of committees for organisations, including the Farm Animal Welfare Council, the British Meat Manufacturers' Association (now the British Meat Processors Association), Defra, the Meat Hygiene Service, Assured British Meat and the RSPCA. Despite this, Parker insists she is not really a committee-sitter and would rather be where it really counts, making improvements in a meat plant where change is needed. Those black sunglasses will come in handy for training, far more useful than a rose-tinted pair.

Road to welfare

The daughter of a BP oil executive, Parker had a passion for horses and ponies from an early age and soon came into contact with farm animals too. She decided on a career in agriculture and found herself one of only five women in a class of 50 at Edinburgh agricultural college. Inevitably, perhaps, she was nicknamed 'mother' although she insists she only helped the boys with academic work and not with doing their laundry! Spells working on farms followed, as did further academic studies to gain degree-level qualifications in animal production science.

It was while working for a dairy unit in Scotland in 1985 that she first came into contact with the macho environment of an abattoir. "The reaction to seeing a female in an abattoir was choice", she says, and when she saw the poor way that livestock were handled, she commented on it. The reaction of the workers was "typical hormonal female" she adds.

This was at a time when animal welfare issues were coming to the fore, however. Pioneering work was starting on housing pigs outdoors. A job was advertised with the Humane Slaughter Association and, advised by friends and colleagues, she took it on. She then stayed at the organisation for 13 years. Highlights included training videos such as 'The Road Ahead' and 'Taking Responsibility', which looked at animal handling techniques for hauliers and abattoir workers. The reception to the videos, she said, was good, but getting to that point was a challenge. Gaining initial trust to get a film crew into an abattoir to film best-practice "took an age" she admits. Filming the second video was more like pushing at a slightly open door. "At the time I didn't think I was making much progress but, looking back, we did." A number of plants and owners co-operated with the pioneering welfare project. It was, Parker said, six years of hard work.

That hard work has now gone global. Parker has used a Waitangi Fellowship to New Zealand to study animal handling and systems design, she has received the RSPCA/British Society of Animal Science Award for innovative developments in animal welfare and, in 2006, she was awarded an MBE for services to farming.

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