Fur coats come in from the cold

The popular image is of pretty animals kept in misery until a brutal death. But, says Richard North, the reality is tidy farms, serious investment and the best example of factory farming
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The Independent Online
Mike Cobbledick owns a very fast-growing business. The 6,000 female mink he has on his farm in Devon will be mated this month and by summer will have an average of five small minks - "kits" - each. Many of them are the quite rare Blue Iris, which fetched about $50 each at auction last month. Around 40 of them are needed to make a coat for the "dumb animals" of the anti-fur ads. Mr Cobbledick last year bought a mink farm in Denmark to double his production, and next winter's harvest of pelts should, with luck, gross him about pounds 2m.

"I'm proud to be a mink farmer", says Mr Cobbledick among the rows of sheds on his English farm, built up over 30 years of riding a notoriously fickle market. "But here, I can't blow my own trumpet". Worse than that, in England he knows he's a pariah. His family and the 10 people he employs face picketing and worse from animal rights protesters.

Wherever it is, mink production involves pretty little animals who live in small cages and are gassed to death aged about seven months. From such farms, 85 per cent of the world's mink is produced, about 45 per cent of it on Denmark's 2,600 mink farms and very little on Britain's nine. It is paraded on the fashion show catwalks of Milan and Frankfurt. With such images to present to the public imagination, it is hardly surprising that Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an American animal rights group) were able to persuade some of the world's leading models to protest against fur farming (though their doing so has not stopped several of them modelling its product since).

Behind the evocative images, there lies a more humdrum reality. Mike Cobbledick's farms are neat and tidy. They bear witness to serious investment, and not merely in the hundreds of thousands of pounds' worth of equipment used to produce feed, or for the annual process of treating the skins. The farms don't smell any more than chicken or pig farms are inclined to, despite the mink's main diet being waste from the fish industry (only about 10 or at most 20 per cent is grain which might be used for human food). Mr Cobbledick's carcasses used to go for rendering and cattle feed, until the BSE scare. Now they go to landfill, but there are hopes that they will soon be part of the waste which fuels a bio-digester producing gas.

Walking between the rows of cages, it is not obvious what the fuss is about. The mink are lively but not frantic; inquisitive but not nervously eager. As one would expect in creatures whose skins will be so closely inspected, they appear to be in prime physical condition.

But few people ever get to see these mostly reassuring scenes, or would necessarily trust a cursory view of them anyway. Instead, they might get in touch with the Government's statutory independent advisers for an informed view. Unfortunately for the fur trade, the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) - which includes vets and welfare campaigners - in 1989 reported on fur farming systems and said they "do not satisfy some of the most basic criteria ... for protecting the welfare of farm animals". FAWC's chairman then and now, Professor Colin Spedding, says the council felt "it would be very difficult to get it right". Mink (and fox, which we'll come to) were still wild after "only" 50-60 generations of breeding in captivity. FAWC asked for further research to be undertaken by the trade before it would come to a conclusion as to what standards might be thought satisfactory. FAWC's existing position is sufficient to reinforce Labour's insistence that it would allow no new fur farms to be licensed, as evidence of its general policy that fur farming should cease.

But this gloomy position looks less tenable in the light of work by Georgia Mason, an ethologist at Oxford University, let alone a deal of Continental work. Following studies on a British mink farm, Dr Mason says: "As far as factory farming goes, the mink are probably the best example there is and the least cause for concern." True, on at least one farm Dr Mason has seen very prevalent behavioural problems, but she says: "I think they can be reduced but not totally abolished by proper husbandry". On five farms I saw none of the behaviour she pointed to.

Seen from a Danish perspective, mainstream British prejudices seem rather odd. Danes buy more free-range eggs than the British, and are growing more fussy than most Britons about the way their milk and pork are produced. But most Danes seem wholly unfazed about mink farming. From the windows of Birger Christensen, perhaps Copenhagen's leading manufacturer and retailer of furs, Pia Rasmussen looks out on the world's first pedestrian street and sees women of every age and income wearing fur. She says: "We have hardly any protest at all. Oh, perhaps a little some years ago. But nothing since."

The scenes of apparent contentment in Mr Cobbledick's Danish farm match those of his farm in Devon (and he says both are typical of any mink farm in the West). In part they flow from the modern acceptance of the kinds of thing FAWC has talked about: the mink all have nest boxes and the cages allow the animals to stand on their hind legs. Jan Elnif, associate professor of fur animal science at the Danish Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University says: "These animals spend 18-20 hours a day in the nest box, as we think they do in the wild if there's enough to eat." Mink are fierce and mostly solitary animals, but modern farmers find both mother and young do well if left together, and that young siblings also thrive in small groups. As to the notorious gassing, Professor Elnif points out that most farm animals suffer their worst stress being carted to slaughter, but that mink die in a cart wheeled to their cage. He adds: "Video evidence says that when the animal comes in, it can't smell the gas. Within 20 seconds they lose consciousness and are clinically dead in two to five minutes. Moreover, as you take an animal out of its cage it might scream but that doesn't disturb the others."

Mink are kept in wire cages, and that includes the flooring. But - and the same is true of battery hens - there is no evidence that they would prefer a solid floor. Professor Elnif says: "Copenhagen University have taken wire and solid bases and allowed the mink to decide which to spend time on - but they spend equal time on either." However, solid floors become filthy and unhygienic very quickly. FAWC had suggested that mink, being semi-aquatic, might like to have swimming facilities in their cages. Professor Elnif is doubtful: "It doesn't swim like an otter. It can't see more than 30 centimetres in the water. It sits and watches for prey from the shore and then dives in for perhaps 10 seconds." The Danes suggest that the barrenness of a mink's cage bothers us but not the animal. Dr Mason is less sure: she and a colleague, Jonathan Cooper, are researching minks' preferences, and find the animals quite keen on swimming. "But that's not to say they would miss not doing it," she says. "It may simply be a case of out of sight, out of mind. We'll have to try to find out".

Denmark's leading authority on mink farming, Knud Erik Heller, associate professor at the Zoological Institute at the University of Copenhagen, says we can certainly tell whether mink are feeling stress, and what's more have a good idea whether they experience "good" or "bad" stress. Broadly speaking, short periods of mild stress are rather good for an animal, but sustained stress can be very bad. "These animals feel a good deal of stress around the times of mating and weaning", he says. But they can be assumed to like the first and not the second, rather like humans, and rather as they would in the wild. Professor Heller stresses that much of what kindly people might assume must be good for animals may actually merely be good for the people wishing it so. "I honestly can't find anything to improve the condition of mink on farms".

There are no fox farms in Britain and very few in Denmark. Their management is controversial, and some mink farmers say they wouldn't undertake it. The Danish Animal Welfare Society's vet, Enid Weber, says she has little complaint about mink farming but does not approve of farming foxes.

To the untutored, and possibly anthropomorphising, eye there is something doggy and baleful about the way a caged fox returns one's stare. They can seem nervous.

However, things are improving, especially with the provision of a shelf which the fox can use as a retreat. Birthe Broberg, the senior veterinary officer at the Danish Ministry of Agriculture, says: "My experience is that before legislation was brought in you would see very barren cages and I felt that they weren't acceptable. But with the changes I thought I could see a difference in the fox. You didn't see the special behaviour of pacing and rolling around."

There is solid evidence that foxes respond well to being given a nest, and that handling when young helps them with human contact later. There is good evidence that foxes can be tamed, and thus perhaps made into surprisingly good candidates for factory farming.

The difference in view between British and Danish feeling is soon to be tested. A standing committee of the Council of Europe is due to meet at the end of April to discuss an updated set of standards for the farming of fur-bearing animals. It is composed of vets from various agriculture ministries, with welfarists - mostly British - as observers. An early draft enshrines the current industry best practice for mink, and includes new provisions for nests and handling for foxes.

The accord will probably face opposition from countries with little or no fur farming, such as France, which operates with what we might as well call "bystander virtue". The British are sympathetic to the anti-farming case, but determined to try to broker as much improvement as possible. Should Labour win the forthcoming election, it is anyone's guess whether they would allow an agriculture minister to sign up to the convention in October, as currently planned.

Any agreement will probably not much dent the prejudice of many people that fur-farming, like fur-wearing, is too much of a luxury to deserve a decent hearing. None the less, it looks as though buying a mink coat is already, and buying a fox coat could soon be, about as morally challenging as tucking into a bacon sandwich. Even now, both are probably already less immoral than paying so little for an egg that it must be produced in a battery cage.