When confronted with information about conditions on factory farms, many people claim only to buy meat from small local farms. The assumption here is that animals are treated better on these sorts of farms. It evokes images of picture-book farmyards with happy animals roaming free. But is this the case?
To answer that question, I want to take a look at the kind of small family farms which are everywhere in rural Wales, where I grew up. I only need to go out for a walk to see these animals first-hand. And yes, the fact that I can see them is an improvement over factory farms, where the animals rarely see daylight. But there are some more disturbing aspects too.
Sheep are the most commonly farmed animals in Wales – Welsh lamb is much prized. But Wales is not the natural habitat of sheep. One problem they face is footrot, a bacterial infection which thrives in wet conditions and causes lameness. I have seen many a pitiful-looking sheep hopping around the fields on three legs, holding one leg in an uncomfortable-looking position.
In an attempt to increase profits, farmers are now making ewes pregnant earlier than they normally would. This has led to some lambs being born early, when the weather is too cold. Many lambs die of exposure as a result. One in five lambs dies within a few days of birth.
Death in adult sheep is also common, with one in twenty dying every year in the UK. One reason is that they often have little or no shelter from the elements. Wild sheep would not stand around in one place all day, and would seek shelter if the weather got bad. Farmed sheep do not have this option.
I’ve seen for myself how many sheep die. Whilst staying in North Wales, my friends and I walked past a gated plot of land which reeked of death. When we asked our host about it, he said it was an incinerator. Dead sheep are legally required to be incinerated, and local farmers had clubbed together to build the facility. What we could smell was the carcasses, which were piled up in a skip behind the gate waiting to be burnt. It was extremely disturbing, and we had to hold our breath every time we walked past.
Another time, I was out walking near home when I came across the remains of a sheep on the path. It had mostly rotted away, with its skeleton visible. The farmer must have known it was there, but had just left it to rot. It’s not uncommon to find sheep skulls if you go walking off the beaten track.
I used to go walking down another footpath which went past a farm. To the side of the path, there was a sign with the words ‘Dead stock’. It sent a shiver down my spine. I realised it was probably where dead animals were left so they could be collected and taken away to be incinerated. Sure enough, another day I saw a dead sheep lying there, glassy-eyed.
You sometimes see vans coming round to collect the carcasses – you can tell which ones they are because of the smell. So I can say with certainty that sheep farming is far from idyllic. There’s much more information about the suffering of farmed sheep in this excellent article.
I’ve seen less of dairy farming, but enough to concern me. Recently, my family and I were driving on a country road when we had to stop to allow a herd of cows to pass. As they walked by, what struck me was how emaciated they were, with bones jutting out everywhere. This is very common with dairy cows, as they’re producing so much milk they physically can’t take in enough calories to compensate.
There was one small farm near me where the cows seemed to be confined to a small, foul-smelling shed even in the daytime. And on a couple of occasions, I’ve seen miserable-looking cows practically up to their ankles in mud and faeces in small pens.
I’ve seen dairy farmers online mocking those concerned about the welfare of their animals. In one group, a farmer shared a photo of a cow’s ear tag, on which he had written ‘bitch from hell’ underneath the number. This was met with much amusement from the other farmers. It’s clear that many of them have little respect for their animals.
A group of my friends were once staying in the Welsh countryside, near where I live, when they heard a farmer shouting abuse at his dog. They caught some of it on camera. They also ventured into a shed where they found a pig in a tiny enclosure biting the bars, a sign of immense frustration. As Aisha points out in the video, should someone who treats his dog that way really be keeping animals? What does it say about how he likely treats his sheep? They also found a dead sheep with its intestines hanging out on the same farmer’s land. They called the RSPCA, who did nothing.
I’m sure at this point some people will protest that these are isolated incidents and that their friendly local farmer would never do that. To these people, I’d like to point out that there are some standard practices which take place virtually everywhere and are inherently cruel. Lambs, for instance, are almost always castrated without anaesthetic. And the dairy industry is dependent on removing calves from their mothers, which is hugely traumatic for both. Piglets sometimes have their teeth clipped; dairy calves usually have their budding horns removed with a hot iron. Sheep are dipped in toxic solutions in an attempt to prevent disease. I could go on, but you take my point. Some of these practices are commonplace even on organic and ‘high-welfare’ farms.
And let’s not forget slaughter. Animals from small farms usually end up at the same slaughterhouses as those from larger ones. In any case, I’ve always been puzzled by the argument that it’s morally acceptable to kill an animal if it had a ‘good life’ (however you define that). Few people would apply this argument to themselves! I discuss this argument in more detail here.
Are animals on small local farms treated better than those on factory farms? Probably, to some degree. But that isn’t saying much. The overarching point is that there’s no humane way to kill and keep captive, no nice way to take what isn’t ours. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – we have no biological need for these products, so exploiting these animals can never be justifiable – at least not in the developed world, where we have so many options.
And to those who still believe eating animal products from local farms is acceptable, what about when you buy food at restaurants or eat at a friend’s house? Do you eat animal products there? And do you know how those animals were treated?
Being vegan is a commitment to never knowingly support animal exploitation again. To me, it is a beautiful and profound thing which has completely changed my perception of animals and the world around me. If you are not already vegan, then I sincerely hope you’ll consider joining me – you can sign up for a free vegan meal plan below to get you started. And check out the free vegan ezine we publish bi-monthly too. Peace.