Cattle and sheep welfare in the UK - what consumers should know

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The UK has some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, which often go far beyond the minimum EU requirements. Many UK farmers also choose to enrol in Assurance Schemes which require them to enhance their systems and improve welfare beyond the basic legal level to ensure high quality, welfare-friendly products are available on the UK market.

Cattle and sheep welfare in the UK - what consumers should know

Furthermore, many UK dairy, beef, and sheep production systems are outdoor and grass-based, making use of land that cannot support the growth of crops and rely largely on rainfall for water. Some additional feed is given to support their nutrition when necessary, and animals might be housed during the winter months to protect the land and allow closer observation of animals at calving and lambing.

Dairy systems are more likely to be indoor to have higher environmental control and achieve better milk yields, but grass is still an important part of their diet, whether grazed directly or brought indoors to the cows.


UK welfare standards are based around ensuring that the five freedoms are met:

  1. Freedom from hunger and thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour

  2. Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area

  3. Freedom from pain, injury, and disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

  4. Freedom from distress and fear by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

  5. Freedom to express natural behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal's own kind


What consumers need to look for

Country of origin information

EU products will state:

  • country of birth, rearing/fattening and slaughter for beef products
  • country of rearing/fattening and slaughter for lamb products

If the country is the same for birth, rearing and slaughter, the animal was less likely to have been transported over long distances.

EU labelling

Soil Association

Organic standard ensuring above standard welfare benefits:

  • Prohibits tethering
  • Ensures bedding
  • Ensures outdoor access
  • Specifies stunning and slaughter practices
Soil association label

RSPCA Assured

Dedicated to improving welfare standards for farm animals:

  • Covers indoor and outdoor beef, dairy and sheep
  • Ensures greater space and bedding
  • On-farm health and welfare monitoring required
  • Specifies stunning and slaughter practices
RSPCA label

Red Tractor

Certifies food was produced in Britain:

  • Some welfare standards beyond minimum legislation
  • On-farm health and welfare monitoring required
Red Tractor label


Importing meat and dairy from other countries

The UK beef sector is facing competition from countries with lower welfare standards. In addition, the seasonality of sheep production means the UK imports large amounts of lamb from New Zealand and Australia. The UK also imports large amounts of products containing milk from cows in systems with much lower welfare systems than the UK.

Main concerns about importing:

  • Housing – many countries still tether their cattle, particularly dairy cattle. In Greece, only 10% of dairy cows have access to grazing, and almost no cows have access to grazing in Bulgaria. In the UK, 95% of cows have access to grazing.
  • Use of growth promoters and hormones – outside of the EU there are no restrictions on the use of growth promoters and hormones in cattle and sheep.
  • Long-distance transport – there is much less regulation on live animal transport in all countries outside of the UK, including EU countries. There are particular concerns when transported by boat.

UK dairy productionDairy products

Cows must have a calf every year to produce milk. The calves are taken away from their mother within a few hours or days of being born. Then they are artificially reared by machines or humans – this maximises the amount of milk available for human consumption.

Male calves (if not disposed of at birth, approx. 19%) and cows which do not get pregnant are no use to the milk industry. They move into the beef sector to produce meat. Males are usually raised uncastrated in intensive indoor systems on high cereal-based diets.

All dairy animals ultimately end up in the meat chain. Therefore, if the primary reason to remove meat from the diet is to prevent the slaughter of animals, the removal of dairy-based products also needs to be considered.

Cow grooming

Cows in intensive indoor dairy systems tend to spend more time indoors than beef and sheep animals. Their welfare is a priority to farmers as a well looked after cow is a productive cow. However, mastitis and lameness are common issues within the dairy sector and need careful management.

Some cows are housed all year round (approximately 5% of UK dairy farms), which is considered intensive, leading to discussions regarding cow welfare. As they tend to be very high yielding, these systems require very careful management of both cattle nutrition and manure disposal to maintain health and welfare and reduce environmental impact. However, in modern, purpose built systems, the welfare can be incredibly high:

  • The indoor environment is controlled to optimise temperature, humidity, and lighting
  • Robotic milking reduces human interference, removes the stress of moving through the parlour, and allows more regularly milking to improve cow comfort and reduce risk of mastitis (infection of the udder)
  • Precision feeding practices provide diets that are unique to each animal to meet their individual nutritional needs and reduce waste and emissions
  • They even have grooming machines installed for the cows!

Common invasive husbandry procedures

These procedures can be uncomfortable but are necessary to minimise further welfare issues. They are controlled by nationally approved welfare standards.

  • Castration of male animals to minimise stress, reduce aggression and prevent unwanted pregnancies of immature female stock
  • Disbudding or dehorning of cattle and sheep to avoid injury to themselves, other livestock and to livestock handlers
  • Tail docking of lambs to reduce the opportunity for other health-related issues, such as parasitic infections

Transport and markets for beef and lamb

Transportation of livestock to markets and abattoir is an essential element of the supply chain. It is a stressful process for the animals concerned, taking them from their farm setting into unfamiliar surroundings. However, the UK has a highly regulated livestock transportation system.  Whilst there is an increasing demand for meat with low food miles due to both carbon and stress level, concerns the industry is also having to deal with the following:

  • Journey times are increasing in the UK due to a decline in the number of markets and abattoirs.
  • Some retailers dictate which abattoirs can be used by their suppliers, resulting in animals needing to be transported further than necessary.

Slaughter protocols

UK slaughter houses have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, and CCTV systems became compulsory in all English abattoirs in 2018. One area of concern which has been in the media recently is religious slaughter, including the issue around not stunning the animal before slaughter (stunning renders the animal unconscious).

There are particular religious requirements for the slaughter of animals destined for the Halal (Muslim) and Shechita (Jewish Kosher) markets.

  • No animals are pre-stunned for Shechita slaughter, whilst nearly 75% of the animals undergoing Halal slaughter in the UK for red meat are pre-stunned.
  • There are methods of pre-stunning which satisfy the requirements of Halal slaughter whilst protecting animal welfare, so Halal non-stun slaughter can be avoided completely.
  • New Zealand, Belgium, Iceland, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark already have legislation banning all non-stun slaughter.

How we can advise  

Our Sustainable Food and Farming team have a wealth of knowledge and breadth of expertise across agri-food supply chains and is a trusted partner across the range of product areas. See our Sustainable Food and Farming webpages for more information on how ADAS can support your business.

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