Thursday, May 21, 2009

On ducks and water

This is something I wouldn't normally write about because it's not really relevant to our local activities, but it's so important because of the general principle involved that I thought I must say something.

Marion Stamp Dawkins is a very famous and respected scientist in the field of animal welfare, and one of her department's recent studies involved DEFRA-funded work on the welfare of farmed ducks.

This is important for anyone who cares about animal welfare, but doesn't think we can simply ban eating farmed ducks, because the UK rears approximately 18 million ducks for meat annually. Currently there is no legal requirement that farmed ducks should have access to water, beyond the provision of "nipples" similar to pet drinking bottles. Allowing large numbers of ducks access to ponds which cannot be kept clean is problematic because of the risk of salmonella and other diseases.

Unfortunately, publication of the first results of the study has been met with howls of derision and very little sympathy for intensively farmed ducks.

If your organisation has a subscription to Science Direct, you can read one of the scientific papers on the results of the study at doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2008.07.008 however, the less readable DEFRA report is free and is available to download. One important finding is that it is possible to enable farmed ducks to keep themselves clean, and stop them getting sore eyes, by providing showers of water droplets. This uses less water than ponds and doesn't have the hygiene risks associated with pools of stagnant water.

Most of the criticism of spending money on this research into welfare standards stems from the view that: "We knew all of this already". This simply isn't true. Abolitionist campaigners have certainly been saying for years that ducks ought to be allowed water they can swim in — to which intensive farmers have replied smartly that this is sentimental nonsense and ducks are better off in warm, dry pens with drinking water that cannot be contaminated by their droppings.

The Oxford study demonstrated for the first time that water is essential to allow efficient preening, which is important for the birds' comfort, but that a clean shower, or a narrow trough is as good for this purpose as a larger body of water.

Interestingly the almost the only non-science publication to have reported the item positively and in a balanced way is Farmers Weekly:
"In an on-farm trial, it was clear that of all water supplies available to ducks – whether it's via a trough, pond, shower or nipple drinker – birds overwhelmingly preferred spending time under the shower.

Although there is no looming regulatory need to offer extra water supplies to farmed ducks, producers – backed by the British Poultry Council – have supported the research, which also included detailed scoring of the birds on test to assess various aspects of their physical condition while alive and after slaughter."
"The purpose of the trial was to assess the behavioural reaction to ducks when given access to a range of different sources of water in which to bathe. Commercial producers were fully supportive of the trial, but recognised that providing clean supplies of water for large numbers of commercially reared ducks – and keeping that water and the area around it clean – isn't easy," said Prof Dawkins.

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