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Long live the FAWC

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A CASUALTY of the Government's review of its arm's length bodies, the Farm Animal Welfare Council ceased to exist at the end of March and has now been reconstituted as an expert committee. Compared with some of the other victims of the Government's review (described at the time as the ‘bonfire of the quangos’), it seems to have emerged relatively unscathed. Now known as the Farm Animal Welfare Committee, it retains its chairman and most of its members and still goes by the old acronym, FAWC.

It looks as if the new committee might have less of a roving remit than the former council, as a phrase explaining that the FAWC could investigate any topic falling under its remit has been removed from its terms of reference and it will now have to work to priorities agreed with government. The committee's terms of reference are more specific than those of the old council and make clear that it will be expected to ‘provide independent, authoritative, impartial and timely advice to Defra and the Devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales on the welfare of farmed animals, including farmed animals on agricultural land, at market, in transit and at the place of killing; and on any legislative or other changes that might be considered necessary to improve standards of animal welfare’. In addition, it will be expected to ‘provide independent scientific support and advice as required by Article 20 of Council Regulation (EC) No1099/2009 on the protection of animals at the time of killing’.

The old council did much to challenge the way people think about animal welfare during the 30 years of its existence, so the emphasis on the fact that the committee's advice should be independent is welcome. A sentence explaining that the FAWC can ‘communicate freely with outside bodies, the European Commission and the public and publish its advice independently’ has been removed from the terms of reference but has been included in a publication protocol prepared in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, so, some minor quibbles aside, it all seems to be a case of the FAWC is dead, long live the FAWC.

Work already started by the council will be completed by the committee, but future activities may be affected by budgetary constraints, so how things will work out in practice remains to be seen. In the meantime, just before it expired, the old FAWC published two opinions which illustrate the role of this kind of advisory group, in whatever guise, in highlighting issues that need to be addressed. The first, on environmental enrichment and mutilations in pigs, examines the extent to which different management practices might reduce the need for mutilations and, in cases where mutilations are necessary, how procedures can be refined, including the possibility of providing pain relief. The other, on lameness in sheep, includes the startling statistic that ‘at least 3 million sheep are lame in the UK at any one moment’, and makes a number of recommendations for reducing its prevalence (see p 391 of this issue).

Farm animal welfare is a complex field and experience has repeatedly shown that well-intentioned measures can all too easily backfire. In attempting to raise standards, the old FAWC was always conscious of the need to strike a balance between what might be considered desirable and what can be done in practical terms, and it is to be hoped that the new committee maintains this approach. In the meantime, the Government should take note of a discussion document published at the end of last year by the Liaison Group of UK Animal Welfare Advisory Bodies, a forum made up of the FAWC, the Animal Procedures Committee, the Companion Animal Welfare Council and the Zoos Forum.* The paper discusses the issue of animal welfare surveillance. It highlights some of the difficulties in finding robust, accessible and up-to-date sources of welfare surveillance data, and considers ways in which systems can be developed and coordinated. Surveillance is fundamental to efforts to improve animal welfare; without it, how can you assess where the real problems are, set priorities and, after taking action, assess whether the situation has improved?

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