Animal Welfare on the dining table. The Easter Lamb

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As of today sheep farming remains one of the most traditional branches of agriculture, as sheep are kept for their milk, meat, wool, and skin. Amongst the many animal welfare issues related to this industry, it is inevitable – especially considering the period of the year that has just passed – to mention early lambing systems and the slaughter of lambs for the Easter market.

Normally, sheep breed once a year and have one or two lambs. The ewe, or female sheep, naturally comes into season in the autumn or winter and after five-month pregnancy most lambs are born in spring, when the temperatures are mild and food is plentiful. But farmers, attracted by the higher prices paid for Easter lambs, which are the most profitable produce of the sheep, have changed this natural breeding cycle with the use of hormones, the control of light intensity, and indoor rearing so that the ewes come into heat sooner, offspring are born earlier, and are able to survive the cold months. But at what price for producers, animals, and consumers?

To make early lamb systems successful and cost-effective producers need to achieve high output, which is made up of various factors: 1) number of lambs reared per ewe, 2) number of ewes per hectare, 3) carcass weight of lambs sold, and 4) price per kg achieved (Gottstein, Today´s Farm, Jan/Feb 2012). Of primary concern is the reproductive performance, since not all ewes are genetically able to conceive lambs earlier, but those who can must give birth to and wean more than one lamb to have a positive financial return. The extra cost for feed, housing and labor of early lambing is just too high to be spread over only one lamb; commercial sheep producers that winter lamb need to be marketing around a 160-200% lamb crop to make money (Neary, The Working Border Collie, Sept/Oct 1995).

Which are the cost factors of early lambing in detail? If lambing occurs during the winter the main requirements are: adequate facilities, housing, health programs, and extra energetic feed for milking ewes. First of all housing is, of course, a big consideration, as the ewes cannot possibly breed outside, under rigid temperatures. Therefore an area for ewes to drop lambs, a lambing pen area, several mixing areas for ewes with young lambs, and an area for ewes that are not close to lambing are all needed to avoid undue stress for the animals. Also the closer proximity of the animals kept indoors intensifies the probability of health problems. Health programs are crucial for ewes and lambs, since mastitis, pneumonia and scours are big concerns in winter lambing systems (Neary, 1995). Lambs are often slaughtered at about 16 weeks at a carcass weight of 18-21 kg, although some are killed as young as 10 weeks and others up to 15 months. Therefore once born, lambs have to grow well in order to “perform” and reach slaughter weight. Consequently in order to meet the nutritional needs of two suckling lambs, ewes need 2.5 kg of barley equivalents and 400 grams of crude protein per day, and as grazed grass will not provide this in December and January, ewes will have to be given supplementary concentrates in addition to forage (Gottstein, 2012).

According to studies undertaken by the Eurogroup for Animals, the main welfare concerns related to sheep include: poor stockmanship and inspection, live transport and markets, parasites and diseases, lamb mortality. Good stockmanship is essential for the welfare of sheep, both adult and baby; the manipulation of the entire natural reproductive cycle of sheep has many undesirable and unhealthy results. For example the fertility treatments often cause the birth of twins and triplets which is very uncommon in sheep and is problematic since ewes only have 2 teats and when triplets are born one of them will be rejected, will have to be kept in a shed, and force fed to avoid starvation. Further problems such as hypothermia, exposure, mismothering and disease can lead to high levels of lamb mortality, whilst factors such as good flock management and inspection, provision of adequate shelter, and control of diseases such as internal parasites are important in safeguarding lamb welfare. A further area of significant concern is the welfare of live young surplus lambs transported for fattening or for sale and of mothering sheep that are transported long distances for slaughter. Such long, complex journeys can, not only cause significant animal welfare problems, but also increase the risk of spreading diseases, as these animals are packed together and are either too young and delicate or completely worn out physically from intense and unnatural breeding. Normally ewes are able to live to the age of 15 but are slaughtered after 4 to 8 as their performance starts to be less profitable; their meat, called mutton, is less popular than lamb so it is mostly used in processed foods (1).

This year Easter Sunday fell on the 5th April. That is 15 days earlier than in 2014 meaning that lambs destined for the Easter market had to be available for slaughter around the 30th March and to compensate the extra costs incurred, as many lambs as possible had to be sold at the peak price, which is usually set around this period. Let´s take as an example Italy, where the Easter lamb is a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Lamb is expensive, particularly Italian lamb or Roman certified lamb, which can cost up to 20€/kg. And those who cannot afford it? The trend of meat imported from Eastern Europe is in continuous growth and this meat is a much cheaper one, as its quality is also much lower. In Italy (according to data collected by ISTAT and published by LAV) last year 400.000 lambs coming from both Italian farms, from Spain, and Eastern Europe were slaughtered for Easter, in contrast to the resurrection that this party represents. Nevertheless there are some positive figures because in the last five years Italy has seen a major drop in the consumption of meat from these animals: in 2010 it was a total of 4,834,473 slaughtered lambs and in 2014 just 2,129,064 (2).

Finally, what does the law say? The Council of Europe agreed in 1992 a Recommendation concerning sheep and a Recommendation concerning goats under the Convention for the Protection of Animals kept for Farming Purposes. These lay down general principles for the husbandry and welfare of both species. Furthermore the framework of general welfare principles provided by the European Convention is implemented in the European Union through the Council Directive 98/58/EC of 20 July 1998 concerning the protection of animals kept for farming purposes which applies to sheep and goats, as to any other farmed animal. This directive provides for the drawing up of additional specific legislation for various species but there is yet none covering sheep and goats on the farm. However, sheep and goats are covered by the provisions of the Council Directive 93/119/EC of 22 December 1993 on the protection of animals at the time of slaughter or killing and by the Council Regulation (EC) No. 1/2005 of 22 December 2004 on the protection of animals during transport and related operations, which sets the fitness for transportation of lambs starting from one week of age, unless they are transported less than 100 km and regulates all the requirements related to the means of transportation, bedding, watering and feeding intervals, journey times, and resting periods. In parallel, the Community has been working to make EU animal welfare policy more widely accepted at international level. This led to the adoption of several welfare guidelines by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) in 2005. In particular the OIE adopted guidelines on stunning and killing for human consumption as well as on killing for disease-control purposes. The Council Regulation (EC) No. 21/2004 establishing a system for the identification and registration of ovine and caprine animals was adopted in December 2003 and is part of the efforts to prevent the spread of animal diseases. Its objective is to be able to quickly determine the animals’ place of origin and movements by gradually introducing an identification system to mark each animal. The European Commission planned to make electronic identification of individual sheep and goat compulsory. This was first postponed till 2010 and on the 3rd July 2008 it was decided by the Standing Committee of Food Chain and Animal Health to start with it from 1 January 2011 and for sheep born before the 31st December 2009 from the 31st December 2011.

Even though producers, transporters, slaughterhouses, and all the actors involved in this chain abide the law, progress can and should undermine tradition. Ethics can also show the law where it should go and whose interests it should consider. Therefore why not keep the lamb as a symbol – because that is exactly what it is, it represents Jesus and relates his death to that of the lamb, sacrificed on the first Passover – on our Easter tables next year, but in a different way? Here the recipe of the ethical Easter lamb cake.

130gr flour;
60gr sugar;
½ spoon baking powder;
1 spoon vanillin;
Peel of a lemon;
50gr margarine;
80ml soya or rice milk;
1 spoon ground almonds;
Confectioner´s sugar.

Mix the margarine with the sugar and vanillin. Add the flour, baking powder, almonds, and lemon peel and then slowly stir in the milk. Pour the batter into a greased and floured lamb form and press down lightly, especially in the where the head is, so that no air bubbles are trapped. Bake at 160° C with air circulation for 40-50 minutes. Allow the lamb to cool in the mold, then cut the bottom straight and take it out from the mold. Before serving, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Mag.iur. Martina Pluda, LLB.oec.

1. Eurogroup for Animals: Sheep and Goats. (01.04.2015).
2. Lega Antivivisezione: Dimezzati agnelli e capretti macellati. (01.04.2015).

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