Archive for September 24, 2009

Stock Dogs Going on the Dole?

sheepdogofthefuture

Is this the sheep dog of the future?

The Telegraph published a disturbing report today that Tesco, the largest retailer in the United Kingdom (and third largest retailer in the world) “has told New Zealand farmers, who supply the supermarket giant with lamb, to stop using the dogs unless they can be retrained to be “more considerate” towards the flock.”

Tesco’s benchmark standards for lamb production state that the animals must undergo “no abuse or mistreatment.”  I’m all for humane treatment of livestock, but this is completely and utterly ridiculous.  The Telegraph reports that:

Welfare experts expressed bafflement that the centuries-old tradition of moving sheep around with the use of a scurrying, yapping dog could upset the sheep.

However, Tesco was adamant that one of its largest suppliers in New Zealand, Silver Fern Farms in Fairton, should stop using dogs to herd sheep into the abattoir.

Unlike in Britain, most abattoirs are attached to farms in New Zealand, ensuring the farm does not need to truck its flock down the motorway to a slaughterhouse.

The supermarket wants the shepherds to wave their arms, beat sticks or wave flags, to move the sheep into the abattoir.

The surprise order from Tesco, which comes into force next week, came to light thanks to a letter sent to the Daily Telegraph by an upset reader.

Mick Petheram, one of the shepherds, said: “New Zealand sheep are used to dogs, they know dogs. There’s more stress in a human herding and manhandling them, waving their arms and beating sticks. Dogs are part of a sheep’s life. This is absolute baloney.”

Maybe things are different in New Zealand, but the American and British handlers I know tell me that a good dog moves sheep with far less stress than any man can.  The dogs that take the ribbons at stock dog trials are typically those that work the sheep in a calm, quiet way.  Most working shepherds prefer dogs that are kind to their sheep and a shepherd’s desire to have his dog work stock at an unruffled pace is rooted as much in practicality as it is in animal welfare.  Spooked, panicked sheep aren’t just stressed out sheep – they’re going to bolt – and that turns handling them into a time-consuming pain in the ass.  You shouldn’t need a doctorate and a pile of government funding to figure out that this is something experienced stockmen and women would prefer to avoid.

It appears that what we have here is a group of  starry-eyed “livestock experts” whose experience in animal handling lies almost entirely in the laboratory who want to “enlighten” the unwashed real-world masses about the importance of every animal’s right to avoid all fear and stress.

I suspect that this particular piece of insanity was derived from a study published in Applied Animal Behavior Science back in October, 2004 titled “Sheep show more aversion to a dog than to a human in an arena test” where “an arena test was used to assess differences in the aversiveness of a box, goat, human and dog.”  The abstract notes that the order of ‘aversiveness’ observed in the study was dog, human, goat then box.  Given those results I wonder why the ‘experts’ didn’t specify that New Zealand farmers need to use goats – or better yet empty boxes – to herd their sheep?

I didn’t read the entire study because I refuse to pay a fee to access what I strongly suspect is a complete and utter piece of sheep shit.  Paint me as a dyed in the wood cynic, but I seriously doubt that experienced shepherds or sheep dogs were used to conduct the ‘arena test’ – or even consulted on its design.  I also believe that unless an ‘arena’ of at least twenty acres in size was used (actually, I’ll lay odds that the typical kiwi pasture is ten to a hundred times that size) the sheep were crowded much too near the test stimuli to simulate anything even remotely approaching real world conditions.

Shame on the folks at Tesco for accepting this group’s recommendations.  Bad science dictating poor animal welfare standards is not a step in the right direction.  Worse yet, junk science like this just make it more difficult to promote truly meaningful animal welfare standards.

September 24, 2009 at 5:39 am 5 comments


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