Scottish scientists develop animal welfare technology

Years of research into animal behaviour will be harnessed in the development of a system capable of evaluating and measuring the sort of emotional wellbeing of livestock which experienced stockmen and women already judge and monitor.

Professor Francoise Wemelsfelder,
Professor Francoise Wemelsfelder,

Scottish based scientists involved in rolling out innovative mobile technology to measure the emotional state of animals yesterday said that society increasingly accepted that animals were not simply production systems to be managed - but were sentient creatures that must be cared for.

Animal behavioural scientists, Professor Francoise Wemelsfelder who has been leading work in the area at the SRUC said that while most farmers would recognise when their animals were happy, content and relaxed, there had been no real metric for measuring these factors:

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“Good physical health is vital for good welfare but there is clear consensus among the scientific animal welfare community that factors such as enjoyment, contentment and positive excitement play an equally vital role in ensuring that an animal has a good life.”

She said that using Qualitative Behavioural Assessment (QBA) not only provided a way to assess these factors, but also opened up the conversation about what positive emotional wellbeing for an animal truly looked like.

And the researchers have teamed up with supermarket Waitrose to roll out a new mobile phone application designed to help gauge and better understand the emotional wellbeing of farm animals.

The first of its kind, the app aims to manage and improve opportunities that animals have to experience a good and enriching life – with aim of further improving standards and validating the UK’s high welfare reputation.

The venture will trial and develop the app over a two year period to help farmers and farm assurance assessors better understand, recognise and record emotionally expressive behaviour that plays an important part in contributing to an animal’s quality of life.

Although she said the app was designed to be practical and easy to use on farm, Professor Wemelsfelder stressed that it was underpinned by rigorous scientific research:

“The method allows animal welfare inspectors to record different expressive qualities of behaviour through the app, such as being relaxed, tense, playful or anxious - behaviours that are indicative of an animal’s emotional body language and possible signs of their general well-being.”

She said that while most farmers had the experience to judge the relative state of animals within their own herds and flocks, the application of the QBA principles would allow wider comparisons to be made with similar species kept under different systems and management regimes.

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“While this remains very much in development, the fact that the app will be trialled and developed on-farm and at scale with a leading supermarket chain is an incredibly significant and positive step for the industry.”

James Bailey, executive director at Waitrose, said that the innovation was a huge development which would help lead the industry into a new and more confident era of farm animal welfare and help the UK validate its reputation for high welfare standards.