The UK Animal Welfare Committee’s (AWC) recent report heavily criticises the lack of progress related to castration and tail docking for the welfare of lambs.

The advisory body for Defra wants to see more action in using rubber rings with anesthesia or alternative methods where needed. If progress is not made soon, then legislation could soon follow to force change in the sheep sector.

The committee specifically wants to see progress on:

  • Increased use of anesthetic and pain relief in castration and tail docking.
  • Research into alternative methods.
  • Approval of suitable products for pain relief in sheep.

Despite an increased drive to change methods used, the AWC report recognises the issue’s complex nature and calls for governments to support developing new methods/products.

NFU Scotland policy manager Penny Middleton said: “The current AWC report blames the lack of progress in delivering the 2008 report recommendations on the government. AWC believes that the government’s failures to provide incentives or a requirement to change have enabled inaction through the failure to support the development of alternatives. AWC continues to endorse its previous view that ‘castration and tail docking, as currently practiced, causes welfare harm that includes immediate and ongoing pain.’

The Scottish Farmer: There is increased pressure to ensure rubber rings are applied with anestheticThere is increased pressure to ensure rubber rings are applied with anesthetic (Image: web)

“AWC believes the Government can no longer justify current castration and tail docking practices and must amend legislation in line with current scientific knowledge. The devolved administrations should simplify the legislation and given the movement of sheep across GB align legislation across regions.”

Due to the lack of progress, AWC has put down a marker recommending that amended legislation come into force by 2028 at the latest. AWC does recognise the work needed to incentivise and support new farming practices and develop new methods of tail docking and castration. They consider that five years should be sufficient for administrations to put the necessary infrastructure and legislation in place.

In recent years, two new products have been developed: the Numnuts system, which delivers anesthetic while applying a standard rubber ring, and the ClipFitter system, which applies a clip, providing similar pain reduction as achieved using a Burdizzo. Experts believe both systems could deliver improvements; however, the government must support further development of best practices around how and when the industry should use them more widely.

Although concerns have been raised as both options are more costly than rubber rings and even if scale of production brings prices down, it is unlikely they will match rubber rings for affordability and convenience.

The Scottish Farmer: Penny Middleton, NFUS policy managerPenny Middleton, NFUS policy manager (Image: web)

Ms Middleton believes that it will be difficult for the devolved administrations to ignore the recommendations of the AWC and their proposed deadline of 2028. Changes have been on the horizon since before the millennium, but the complexity and necessity of both processes for the industry have meant little progress; it looks like the Government will now be unable to avoid change.

Ms. Middleton went on to explain: “If the report’s recommendations were fully implemented, it would effectively prohibit the use of rubber bands, without anesthesia and pain relief, at any age. Legislation may permit producers to use devices like ClipFitter because they result in significantly less pain.

“Either way, the sheep sector in Scotland will be forced to critically examine if and how they perform castration and tail docking.

“NFUS will engage with the Government, highlighting the need for practical and affordable options for castration and tail docking, as both remain essential for sheep production in Scotland.”