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ONCE skills are lost, they are hard to regain, which makes a recent report from the Farm Animal Welfare Council (fawc) all the more timely.* The report concerns stockmanship, which the fawc has long maintained is the single most important influence on the welfare of farm animals. What makes the report topical, as the council's chairman, Professor Christopher Wathes, points out, is that the quality of British stockmanship is currently under threat. There are a number of reasons for this, including the low profitability of farming leading to reductions in staffing to reduce costs, and the breakdown of succession on family farms as new generations seek different careers. ‘Over time,’ he says, ‘these factors will diminish the knowledge, skills and experience of British stockmen that are essential for high standards of welfare.’
The report highlights the importance of stockmen in any livestock production system, noting that ‘Good stockmanship can often compensate for deficiencies in a livestock production system but the converse is never true’ and that their knowledge, skills, abilities and attitude are ‘integral’ to the standard of welfare. It also draws attention to the role and responsibilities of animal keepers under the Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, both in providing for the physical and welfare needs of animals and in the recognition, reporting and prevention of disease. At the same time, it provides a sobering assessment of the diminishing skills base available within the industry and, indeed, the training opportunities available ‘at a time when enhanced knowledge and skills are vital’. It sees ‘the provision of effective education and training on a regular and progressive basis’ as being essential in ensuring a steady supply of skilled, motivated stockmen, and argues that this should be a focus for future initiatives involving the Government and the industry.
Good stockmen are distinguished by characteristics and qualities that are sometimes described as ‘stock sense’. Such attributes do not always come naturally, but the fawc believes that many components of stock sense can be acquired through experience and well targeted training, provided that suitable staff are recruited, the production system is well designed and effective management support is provided. It sets out ‘three essentials of stockmanship’ which it believes should be the basis of education, training and motivational training programmes for stockmen. These are:
Knowledge of animal husbandry — sound knowledge of the biology and husbandry of farm animals, including how their needs may be best provided for in all circumstances.
Skills in animal husbandry — demonstrable skills in observation, handling, care and treatment of animals, and problem detection and resolution.
Personal qualities — affinity and empathy with animals, dedication and patience.
While highlighting the need for cpd, the fawc is concerned by the low uptake (‘less than 1 per cent’) of training and certification opportunities by stockmen, and suggests that this may indicate a lack of suitable training in relation to need. It accepts that there are difficulties in educating and training stockmen, including single-handed working, remoteness from colleges and universities, and access to trainers and courses off-site. It also draws attention to a culture in which formal training and qualifications appear not to be valued in some sectors of the industry. However, it believes that these problems can be overcome. It recommends that the livestock industry and the Government develop improved accredited training programmes, similar to those pioneered by the pig and poultry industries. It further recommends that vocational qualifications for livestock farmers and stockmen should be simplified so that training and certification is largely undertaken on site.
The fawc notes that veterinary surgeons have ‘a particularly valuable role’ to play in educating and training stockmen in animal husbandry. However, it suggests that the husbandry and practical skills content in undergraduate courses in animal science, veterinary medicine and related disciplines has been reduced over the past decade. Overall, it is concerned about a potential shortage of professionals capable of providing leadership and training in this area, and recommends that the universities, land-based colleges, RCVS and the livestock industry should keep the situation under regular review.
Regarding funding for training, the fawc suggests that the current arrangements could be improved and calls for ‘pump-priming’ finance to help stimulate interest. It says there are strong ‘public good’ arguments for effective education, training and advisory support in stockmanship, and recommends that the level of support is reviewed by the Government, in association with the livestock industry, to ensure that it meets both public and private requirements for sustainable livestock farming based on a skilled workforce. It is to be hoped that the Government takes heed of this and other recommendations from its advisory body. As the fawc points out, good stockmen make a unique contribution to the health, welfare and productivity of livestock, leading in turn to sustainable and profitable farming. A positive response would indicate a degree of commitment to the kind of partnership working which the Government is so keen to espouse.
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