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Farm animal health and welfare: past, present and future

Press release issued: 15 April 2008

How far have we come and what is the future for farm animal welfare? This will be the focus of a public lecture and international conference at Bristol University this week.

How far have we come and what is the future for farm animal welfare?  This will be the focus of a public lecture and international conference at Bristol University this week.

Entitled Farm animal health and welfare - past, present and future, the lecture will be given by Alick Simmons, Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer of the UK Government Department, Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs).  

The lecture takes place at 6.30 pm on Thursday, April 17 in the Powell Lecture Theatre, H H Wills Physics Building, Tyndall Avenue, Bristol.  It is free and open to everyone

The lecture is part of this year's Colston Research Society Symposium, a two-day meeting at the University's School of Veterinary Science at Langford, which will bring together an international line-up of experts to discuss farm animal welfare and the link with disease.

The symposium entitled, Farm animal welfare and the interface with disease, has six sessions that will progress from the fundamentals of animal welfare, stress and disease, to a consideration of how this scientific knowledge of animal welfare and disease can be implemented under commercial conditions.

John Webster, Emeritus Professor at Bristol University will introduce the main themes of the conference and give a talk entitled, Sentience, suffering and disease.

His talk will explore how the capacity for feeling, suffering and disease could be combined into a complex but logical model for new research and understanding.

Professor Webster will explain how the welfare of any farm animal is determined by how well it can cope with the challenges of life.  Welfare and disease are closely linked and it is self-evident that disease can compromise animal welfare.  He will discuss the more interesting and difficult question "Can physiological and emotional challenges to welfare compromise resistance to disease?" 

He will argue there is good reason to believe that many of the most important diseases of farm animals may be hastened by the stresses of farm life.  However, proof is difficult and depends on evidence from a range of scientific disciplines including physiology and psychology, microbiology and immunology.

Christine Nicol, Professor of Animal Welfare at Bristol University will talk on Disparate links between behaviour, welfare and disease.  Professor Nicol will consider what behavioural strategies have evolved to enable animals to avoid infection by looking at studies that show frogs avoid ponds where they are in danger of contacting parasites, and that female mice can detect then avoid males that are infected with gut-parasites. 

She will discuss animals can also use social learning, by watching the reactions of their companions, to tell them when a food is apparently safe to eat - but simple rules-of-thumb do not always work. Rats and chickens disregard obvious signs of aversive reactions to toxic foods in their companions. Professor Nicol will explain the need to develop a framework to examine the strategies that animals have developed to avoid infection - and then make sure we allow them to use these strategies in modern farming systems.

Conference director, Stuart Pope, said: "The symposium will bring together highly regarded speakers from the UK, Europe, and the United States and will provide a unique environment where knowledge can be both shared and developed.

"There is a growing realisation that the welfare of production animals influences their productivity and susceptibility to disease and as a result food safety. Animal welfare is therefore a humanitarian and public health concern." 

The meeting is sponsored by the Colston Research Society and organised by the University's School of Veterinary Science.   It is generously supported by the BVA (Bristol Veterinary Association) Animal Welfare Foundation, the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council); and the Veterinary Training and Research Initiative.


Further information

Alick Simmons was appointed Deputy Chief Veterinary Officer of Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) on 21 November 2007.

Alick joined Defra from the Food Standards Agency where he had been Veterinary Director since 2004. Previously he held a variety of policy, advisory and operational positions in the UK Government's agricultural departments.

He has spent most of his career involved in livestock disease control and food safety. He has worked in private practices in the UK and as a state veterinarian in a number of countries where he has been involved in the control of livestock diseases with public health and economic significance, including BSE, FMD, bovine TB, brucellosis, rabies, classical swine fever and Newcastle disease.

Alick also worked as a slaughterhouse veterinarian in the UK, Belize and Australia and inspected meat premises overseas on behalf of the EU and the UK Government.

John Webster is Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol. He is the founding father of the Bristol Animal Behaviour and Welfare Science team and the original proponent of the 'Five freedoms'.

His widely-read book 'Animal welfare: a cool eye towards Eden' (1994) is still in print and its successor, 'Animal welfare: limping towards Eden' was published in January 2005.

Christine Nicol obtained a DPhil from the University of Oxford in 1986. She is now a Professor of Animal Welfare at Bristol University's School of Veterinary Science, where she leads an active research group. She is an expert on social cognition in animals and animal welfare. She heads government-funded studies of leg and skeletal problems in broiler chickens and laying hens, and has funding from the NC3Rs to devise improved methods of detecting welfare problems in laboratory animals.

The Colston Research Symposium entitled 'Farm animal welfare and the interface with disease' takes places from Wednesday, April 16 to Thursday, April 17.

The Colston Research Society was founded in 1899 as the 'University College Colston Society', a body of Bristol citizens who wished to assist the University College. From 1908 to 1948 it applied its resources in grants to defray the expenses of specific research projects in various departments of the University. Since 1948 the first charge on its funds has been the promotion in the University of an annual Symposium, with publication of the proceedings in a series of Colston Papers.

Please contact Joanne Fryer for further information.
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