A quick glance at the title and its photograph might lead to the assumption that for domestic and domesticated species that this blog is about ‘intensive’ farming being ‘bad animal welfare’ and ‘rewilding’ being ‘good animal welfare’. But this not what this blog seek to address.


Rewilding is all the rage, and can be defined the large-scale restoration of ecosystems to the point where nature is allowed to take care of itself. It is recognised there is a role in rewilding for grazing animals, but in the UK it is a debate whether they should be exotic or domestic and domesticated species? Should exotic elk and bison or native cattle and sheep be used, or the exotic Konik or native Exmoor pony breed be used, and what are any animal welfare implications? 


The poster child for rewilding in the UK is often seen as the Knepp Estate  whose free-roaming herbivores include Longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs, and several deer species. These are domestic species from the UK, and some have been domesticated. So whilst  the use of domesticated species has been labelled ‘rewilding lite’, these domestic and domesticate species are in practice a feature of rewilding in the UK. As such the Wild Ken Hill estate their rewilding project is also using  domesticated species; Exmoor ponies, Tamworth pigs and their case Red Poll cattle. 


So this bring us back to the photograph, which is Red Poll cattle at the Knepp Estate, taken by me in the 1970’s when I was veterinary student learning animal husbandry with their Red Poll miking herd. As I understand the herd was sold some year later, and indeed when the current owner came to implement  rewilding, the comment was made this breed might have been suitable to have been retained for rewilding! [check BOOK]


So to the point; whether the Red Poll cattle had been kept as they were in the 1970’s or rewilded in the 2020’s, how should we assess their welfare? Would the 1970’s cattle have been better or worse off than the 2020’s cattle? From personal experience in the 1970’s  they had competent and diligent herdsmen, and good veterinary care; I had no concerns of their welfare.


What are the animal welfare standards for these rewilded species and breeds, could they be worse with less focus on welfare: “Rewilded cattle and horses are in constant contact with wildlife and thus with parasites and disease. In the long term it does not help to give them treatment. They have to build up their own resistance and learn to take care of themselves”?


So how do well assess this issue when how the animals live are so different? To date most welfare standards for farm animals are based on ‘inputs’: they describe what must be provided to the animals in terms of certain resources such as housing, space, feed, veterinary care and management practices. But more widely the effects of these inputs, or absence of them when rewilded, on the welfare of the animals are important, these are know as  ‘welfare outcomes’: the impact of these inputs on the health, physical condition and behaviour of the animals themselves. This is known as ‘welfare outcome assessment’.


So I would suggest a system of welfare outcome assessment is the way to address the animal welfare challenges of the use of domesticate species in rewilding projects, particular in the UK. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) has long history of being advocates of conservation grazing using native breeds of domesticated species, and have animal health and welfare standards based on the ‘five freedoms', which are a form of output standards. The RBST also provides training for conservation grazing.


Animal welfare output standards are a developing area, but as a starting point I would suggest there should be no fundamental difference, whether domesticated species are farmed, conservation grazed or rewilded, in the animal welfare output standards that are applied. And at present the RBST’s  animal health and welfare standards for conservation grazing would seem the most appropriate starting point to assess animal welfare in rewilded domesticated species.