Flying largely in the face of what is perceived in the UK, New Zealand is the one country globally that can be judged to have better farm animal welfare standards than the UK – that's according to animal protection body, the RSCPA.

Animal welfare has been put in the spotlight as the UK and New Zealand thrash out a potential Free Trade Agreement, where it is proposed traded food products must be produced to similar standards. UK opponents have been using the welfare issue as a potential block, citing better standards in the UK.

However, when giving evidence to Westminster’s International Agreements Committee, the RSCPA stated: “New Zealand is the only country with whom the UK is negotiating a Free Trade Agreement where there is broad equivalence on animal welfare standards. In some areas, New Zealand’s farm standards are above the UK’s.”

The RSPCA lists non-stun slaughter, increased lameness in sheep, legal live exports and poorer access to the outdoors for dairy cattle as areas where the UK lags behind on welfare. Whilst in other areas, the charity stated that the UK was ahead of New Zealand with our ban on sow stalls, more free range hens and henhouse cleanliness rules.

Meanwhile there were also areas of similarity, such as both countries have banned mulesing in lambs and similar base line cage spaces and stocking densities for chickens. However, the RSPCA believed that 'the gap may widen in the future as New Zealand is phasing out cages for laying hens and farrowing crates for pigs both of which are still legal in the UK.'

As trade negotiations continue, the RSPCA is running comparisons between each country’s farming standards to assess if a future deal could stipulate equivalent welfare rules. When investigating the welfare in New Zealand, it wanted to ascertain if standards are different. This would be important in verifying any trade deal and could be the difference in a 'yea' or 'nay'.

RSPCA also site international welfare ratings by World Animal Protection, formerly The World Society for the Protection of Animals. In the NGO’s Animal Welfare Index, the UK scores a 'D' for farm welfare, whilst New Zealand is classed slightly better, as 'C'.

Comparison between NZ and the UK showed concern that sheep lameness in the UK was reported at between 2% to 6% of animals, compared to only 1% in New Zealand. They also note that non-stun slaughter is banned in New Zealand, whilst it is permitted here in the UK but not used in Scotland.

The report added that in New Zealand 80% of dairy cows were kept outdoors 12 months of the year, whilst in the UK it is only 4% – between 8-10% of dairies here run an all-year housed system. It also explained that whilst live exports were due to be banned in the UK, they had been illegal in New Zealand since 2003.

Despite these differences, RSPCA stated that the UK and NZ had many shared values around quality in production systems and similarly high food safety, animal welfare, environmental and labour standards.

On a recent trip to the UK, Andrew Morrison – chair of Beef and Lamb New Zealand – told The Scottish Farmer: “We run comparable systems to the UK. We need to put to bed any thoughts of our standards as being below the UK. The RSPCA made a statement to Parliament that New Zealand was the one place that had better welfare standards than the UK and I am proud that we do.”

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On his trip, the South Island farmer was keen to talk up the benefits of a trade deal and pointed out that New Zealand had been sending lamb to the UK for 140 years and would continue to be 'responsible' trade partners. He explained that they had a diverse export strategy now, with greater focus on China and South-east Asia.

He said: “Our meat goes to 120 different countries. We are not going to be bringing a whole lot of product in here. Our sector is also decreasing in size, we have planted 140,000 ha of sheep and beef farms into forestry for climate change mitigation measures. There are opportunities for beef here, but we also send beef all over the world.”

Sending beef and lamb across the globe might appear to clash with the drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But Mr Morrison said: “Shipping lamb or beef to the UK only accounts for 1-4% of the carbon foot print. It is an insignificant part of it.

"Our efficiency drive since the 1980s has really driven down our footprint, it has dropped 30% from 1990s levels. We have very low levels of carbon emission associated with our products. We are not saying we are better than anyone else, but we want to give customers the environmental metrics and I am not saying we are better than Welsh, or Scottish farmers.”

On his trade tour of the UK, Mr Morrison was keen to point out opportunities to collaborate. He said: “The world is crying out for protein. Lamb represents 2% of meat consumption in the world, wouldn’t it be great if we worked together to get that to 4%?”

He also said the two countries working together on climate change projects, highlighting opportunities with a low emission sheep breeding programme.