Peter Stevenson: Coalition stance on industrial dairy farms will see cows suffer

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The Conservatives, the dominant members of the Coalition Government, are traditionally the farmers' friend yet it would be unfair to accuse them of being any worse than Labour on the welfare of farm animals.

There have been positive measures and there have been black marks but they are certainly no worse than the last government and are better than we expected.

I have met Jim Paice and have found him to be someone we can have a dialogue with. However much I disagree with him on issues such as industrial dairy herds, it would be wrong to say he's insensitive to animal welfare issues. Oddly, the mutilation of hen beaks is an issue on which I would give him half a tick in the box. We are totally opposed to beak trimming, it's a dreadful practice, but compared with what might have happened, his attitude has been surprisingly positive.

The last government announced they would ban the practice in 2002 but it failed to put sufficient pressure on the industry to comply.

Rather than dropping the ban altogether, Mr Paice has set a new timetable for a ban, something Labour refused to do. Trimming hens' beaks with hot blades is still going to be banned next year; what will continue is trimming using infrared, which the industry hoped would allow them to say the procedure didn't hurt the animals – there is some scientific evidence that suggests infrared is just as painful as the blades. And it still causes distress because their natural behaviour is to peck, which trimming prevents.

One issue on which the Government has scored very badly, however, is industrial dairy herds. Mega-dairies will in all likelihood become widespread if allowed and the Government is refusing to come out against them as it should. It's galling. The cows are likely to suffer hugely and the idea of cattle that can't graze in fields is something I think most people find appalling. Similarly, the cloning of farm animals concerns us greatly and will have serious consequences for the welfare of livestock because of the stresses on their bodies. Yet the Government, in refusing to oppose the use of the offspring of cloned livestock, has in essence given the industry the message, "It's OK, chaps, you can carry on cloning."

Peter Stevenson is chief policy adviser of Compassion in World Farming

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