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RSPCA welfare standards

RSPCA welfare standards

The RSPCA standards have been developed with the goal of ensuring that all animals are reared, transported and slaughtered under higher welfare conditions and have everything required for a better quality of life. Whether they are kept on large or small farms, indoors or free-range, the RSPCA’s standards ensure that every aspect of the life of the animal is covered from birth or hatching right through to slaughter, including their feed and water requirements, the environment in which they live, how they are handled, their healthcare and how they are transported and slaughtered.

The RSPCA’s welfare standards are at the core of everything RSPCA Assured does and provide a benchmark for higher welfare farming across the UK and beyond. It’s therefore essential that they are underpinned by robust evidence from scientific developments and practical experience. When developing their standards, the RSPCA aims to promote the highest levels of animal welfare achievable in a commercial farming environment and strives to provide animals with the opportunity for a ‘good life’.

What makes RSPCA Assured standards different?

The RSPCA welfare standards that all RSPCA Assured members must adhere to are fundamental in maintaining a better standard of life for the animals but what does this really mean? Full versions of the RSPCA’s standards for each species can be downloaded. Here are a few examples of what makes the standards different from those used by other assurance schemes.

Farrowing crates: while still legal in the UK, farrowing crates are prohibited under the RSPCA standards so cannot be used on RSPCA Assured pig farms.

Environmental enrichment: laying hens, meat chickens, pigs, dairy cows, calves and turkeys must all be supplied with an appropriate amount of species-specific enrichment such as straw and/or objects to interest and engage them during the day and allow them to express natural behaviour.

Dustbathing: laying hens and meat chickens must be provided with plenty of suitable material they can use for dustbathing. This is a natural behaviour and one which is important to the animals’ well being.

Raised perches: in England and Wales, we exceed legislation by insisting upon raised perches in laying hen houses to provide the birds with a refuge to rest and preen.

Space: laying hens, meat chickens, beef cattle, sheep, turkeys and pigs, must, in most situations, be given more space so that they can move around freely.

How are the RSPCA farm animal welfare standards developed?

All farms, transporters and slaughterhouses on the RSPCA Assured scheme must abide by the RSPCA’s higher welfare standards. The RSPCA works to continually develop and improve their welfare standards using a range of information, including the latest scientific research and practical farming experience. They regularly consult with other animal welfare and agricultural scientists, veterinary surgeons, and farming industry representatives as well as considering information from field staff - including both RSPCA Farm ALivestock Officers and RSPCA Assured Assessors who see how the standards are applied in practice on a daily basis. This helps to ensure that the RSPCA welfare standards continue to be at the forefront of farm animal care and welfare, and are also achievable in practice by commercial farmers, transporters and slaughterhouses.

What is the process for creating and amending the RSPCA farm animal welfare standards? 

The RSPCA standards are working documents that have been adapted and amended over the years to take account of changes in the farming industry and to reflect the most up to date knowledge and understanding of animal welfare. The RSPCA consults widely with many stakeholders on an ongoing and ad-hoc basis to collect a wide range of evidence to aid the development of the standards. They also have a formal consultation process to review and develop the standards through the implementation of the RSPCA species-specific Standards Technical Advisory Groups (STAGs). These include farmers, vets, scientists and other relevant experts.

In addition to the STAGs, the RSPCA formally seeks the views and advice of a wider group of relevant stakeholders, as required, to help provide broader input into the standards review and development process. This includes those from both the farming and food industries (e.g. food retailers), veterinary profession, farming equipment manufacturers and welfare science experts. The RSPCA then uses all the gathered information to inform the development of amendments and additions to the existing standards.

Any proposed updates or amendments are then discussed with the species-specific STAG, minor amendments can be approved at this stage and be incorporated into the standards document.

Major updates are presented to the RSPCA Trustee Board’s animal welfare sub-committee for approval. Minor amendments will also be seen by the committee but for information purposes only.

Once approved, a new set of standards is published and sent to all appropriate RSPCA Assured members and made available on the RSPCA website. Members are informed of any changes a minimum of three months before they are required to apply them, although they are sometimes given more time to apply major changes, which may take longer to implement (for example, if changes to buildings are needed).

What STAGs are there?

Thorough industry and/or animal welfare knowledge and genuine experience are fundamental for creating effective welfare standards, so that’s why for each of the animal species covered by the RSPCA standards, there is a unique STAG. This means the RSPCA has a STAG for each of the following: meat chickens (broilers), egg-laying hens, pullets (young hens up to the point they lay eggs), pigs, dairy cattle, beef cattle, sheep, turkeys, salmon and trout.

Who is involved in the RSPCA’s STAGs?

The members are selected based on the specific expertise they bring to the group in different areas of livestock care. The STAGs includes the following mix of members, as appropriate:

  • A chairperson
  • RSPCA farm animal welfare specialists
  • RSPCA Assured farmers from larger farms
  • RSPCA Assured farmers from smaller farms
  • Animal welfare scientists
  • Production scientists
  • Agricultural consultants
  • Vets with species-specific expertise
  • RSPCA Assured field operatives
  • RSPCA field staff (Farm Livestock Officers)

Further information about the operation, purpose and membership of the STAGs can be found on the RSPCA website.

Why are farmers involved in the STAGs?

It is really important that the RSPCA invites farmers to be part of their STAGs, as any changes made to the standards will directly affect how they run their farms. It is the best possible way to get a genuine insight into how the standards are likely to work in practice, and how easy or difficult it might be for them to be applied. The RSPCA makes all the decisions about what their standards should require, but by speaking directly to the farmers, they can better understand the issues that arise on farms every day and help to ensure that animals will truly benefit from the standards they are setting.

What are STAGs for?

STAGs allow the RSPCA to consult directly and in detail with relevant vets, farmers, industry experts, welfare scientists, and other professionals to ensure the RSPCA standards are credible and practical as well as being at the forefront of welfare. They also provide a forum in which the views, ideas and knowledge of relevant specialists can be gathered and discussed so the RSPCA can continue to review and update its standards as appropriate.

The STAGs also support the consideration of new industry information, innovations, and feedback from RSPCA Assured scheme members who use the standards and can advise of any particular issues there may be with their application in practice. STAG members also provide information on current industry issues and developments, and the Groups also consider current potential future research and industry innovations which might have an effect on the standards or how they are implemented.

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