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Changes on the horizon for castration and tail docking of lambs

The sheep sector in Scotland will be forced to critically examine if and how it performs castration and tail docking of lambs in the future according to Animal Health and Welfare Policy Manager Penny Middleton. 

While the Government must recognise the recommendations from a recent welfare report, NFU Scotland is adamant that it must not ignore the need for support and development to step up and facilitate the sheep sector to change from current practices. Penny writes: 

The Animal Welfare Committee’s recent report heavily criticises the lack of progress related to castration and tail docking for the welfare of lambs since its previous 1994 and 2008 reports. The Animal Welfare Committee (AWC) is an animal welfare advisory body to the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). 

Its previous recommendations, made in 2008, included the need for:

  • increased use of anaesthetic and pain relief in castration and tail docking; 
  • research into alternative methods and; 
  • approval of suitable products for pain relief in sheep. 

At the time, the report recognised the issue's complex nature and called for governments to support developing new methods and products. 

The current AWC report blames the lack of progress in delivering the 2008 report recommendations firmly on Government. AWC believes that the Government failures to provide incentive, or a requirement to change, has enabled inaction through the failure to support development for 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.’ 

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. It considers that five years should be sufficient for administrations to put the necessary infrastructure and legislation in place. 

We have seen two new products developed in recent years. The Numnuts system which delivers anaesthetic whilst applying a standard rubber ring and the ClipFitter system, which applies a clip, providing similar pain reduction as achieved using a Burdizzo-type castrator. Both systems look like they will deliver welfare improvements, however, the Government must support further development of best practice around how and when industry should use them more widely. 

Both options are more costly than the traditional use of rubber castration and tailing rings and even if scale of production brings prices down, it is unlikely they will match rubber rings for affordability and convenience. 

It will be difficult for the devolved administrations to ignore the recommendations of the AWC and its 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, and it looks like the Government will now be unable to avoid change. 

These report recommendations would effectively prohibit the use of rubber bands, without anaesthesia and pain relief, at any age. Legislation may permit producers to use devices like ClipFitter because it results 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. 

We will continue to underline how our members and wider industry need support to transition to new systems. While the Government must recognise the recommendations from the report, it must not ignore the need for support and development to step up and facilitate the sector to change. 

Author: Penny Middleton

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About The Author

Penny Middleton

Although city born I have always had a strong interest in animals and the countryside. I have a Master’s degree in Livestock Production from the University of Aberdeen and spent some additional time doing research work some of which necessitated working on farm with livestock. I worked as an Inspector for the Scottish SPCA for a number of years before taking over more detailed work for them on legislation, lobbying and training before moving to my current role within NFUS.

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