Sermon from 2011 Annual Service

Animal Welfare Sunday – 9th October 2011

King’s Norton, Birmingham


So often when we watch TV these days, or even listen to the radio, we hear that warning “some may find the material that follows distressing”.  Hence the opportunity for the more sensitive among us to rush to switch channels, switch off, or make a cup of tea.  And no harm done……


Or is harm done?


That is the question I’d like to think about with you this morning, and specifically with regard to the farming of animals.


Those who listen to The Archers or watch Countryfile will rarely need to resort to the off-switch.  Generally, they will have their traditional storybook image of contented  animals in fields tended by caring farmers reinforced.  That is how we like to imagine that the meat and dairy products we eat are produced.


How very different is the carefully hidden reality.  For most people the hidden reality is a ‘switch-off’!


You see, much of the meat we eat these days is produced in factories, not on farms, and this applies in particular to bacon, sausage, ham and pork – pig meat.


Pigs are in fact highly intelligent animals, in many senses more intelligent than dogs, but certainly with similar needs.  A friend of mine who reared a piglet at home (don’t ask – its a long story) reports that she was “ house-trained” at five weeks, and able to obey the command “Sit” very shortly after.  Yet most British pigs, as well as those who are slaughtered abroad and whose meat is imported, spend their lives no, not in well-tended and roomy pig farms, but in barren crowded sheds.


Yes, these pigs will have their need for food satisfied.  After all, that what they are there for – to convert plant food into meat.  But, in most factory farm systems, all the other needs they share with us and our household pets will be cruelly frustrated.


For example, just like your own dog or cat, pigs need —


  • Somewhere comfortable to sleep:  In fact only about 30% of the piglets being reared for meat are given straw bedding, and the rest must make do with hard concrete or slatted floors.


  • Something to DO: growing piglets need to play.  Lacking anything to play with or explore in their barren environment they often turn to the only thing available: they bite each others tails.  This is un-natural, and only happens when pigs are bored and frustrated, and have no room to play and nothing to play with.  Thus, many factory farmers cut off part of the tail – a painful procedure – to prevent tail biting.  Usually pointed side-teeth will have been clipped off down to the gum a few days after birth – also painful.


In fact the needs of pigs, as of all animals, are much more complex than what I have described  They have great needs for exploratory behaviour, companionship, and parental affection, for instance.  Farming systems vary, and some of the best, in particular free-range and organic systems, attempt to satisfy at least some of those needs.


But  the majority of pigs that end up filling sausage skins and bacon sandwiches know little other than misery from their births in factory farms to their deaths in modern fast through-put slaughter-houses.  And people of sensitive disposition certainly wouldn’t want to hear the gruesome details of our abattoirs, our slaughter houses.  Inevitably they are places of death, but much of the killing is far from anything that could be called humane.


As I say, much of what I have been describing is a switch-off for most people; but it is the truth.


How nice, then, to be able to consider, instead, the peaceful life of the dairy cow grazing contentedly in the field.


Until you ask the question: What has happened to its calf?  What calf?  Women have to be nursing mothers, have to had had a baby, in order to produce milk from their breasts.  That is obvious.  But is it equally obvious to everyone that cows have to give birth to a calf before they can produce their milk.  Most cows that produce our milk are specially bred to produce high yields, and are kept pregnant most of their working lives.  That stands to reason: no calf – no milk – no sale.  Male calves are of little use in a milking herd, and are usually not suitable as beef cattle: in our country huge numbers of male calves are shot at birth each year, while others are exported to the even more cruel fate of continental veal production.


Those prepared to read the full details of the dairy cow’s life will find them in the booklets  given at this service.  They will learn that life is considerably shorter  for today’s dairy cows than it was for those a few decades ago, and that suffering is considerably more severe and widespread.


In fact, in the ways in which we use and abuse most farm animals we have stepped backwards, not forwards, in this supposedly “enlightened” age.   For farm animals these are The Dark Ages.  


And who’s fault is that?


Mainly, I would suggest, it is the fault of people like you and me, ordinary reasonably kind people, and especially those of ‘sensitive disposition’ who plead “Don’t tell me, I can’t bear to hear about it” at any suggestion of facing up to the facts of modern industrial farming.  Many such people are to be found in any church congregation.  Some are to be found standing in  pulpits, and carefully avoiding any mention of the massive cruelty we are inflicting on huge numbers of living creature right now, in this country as well as overseas.


After all, the more careless and carelessly cruel among us just do not see the suffering of animals as a problem  … they cannot see what all the fuss is about!


The men and women who produce our meat and dairy food are by no means all careless or cruel, but the pressure is on them to come up with what-ever we want at what-ever price we are prepared to pay.  It does cost more to rear farm animals in a humane way.  And if we are genuinely neither cruel nor careless, we will want to see our farm animals humanely treated.  That will only happen when sufficient of us choose to act differently by eating less animal produce (to the great benefit of our health, incidentally!) and paying more when we do buy animal products by choosing our meat and our milk only from those sources where the rearing and slaughter of animals has been more humane.  I am talking about genuinely organic or free-range farming.  And don’t think you can’t make a difference.  Each of us making this kind of choice makes a difference.  Just look at the amount of free-range eggs on our supermarket shelves these days.  You would not have seen them there ten years ago!


There really are practical and manageable things that each of us can do to say a firm ‘NO’ to the cruelty concealed all around us.  I know that some people at this service, members of The Anglican Society for Animal Welfare and similar organisations, are already involved in actively campaigning for better farm animal welfare.  Others have stopped eating meat and dairy produce.  Yet others have opted to shop for only those products that carry welfare labels such as organic or free-range.  Choose what makes sense to you at present, but don’t, for God’s sake, and for the sake of those creatures who cannot speak for themselves, do nothing !


All these actions can help animals – help, in the long run, please God, to make things better for them.   What doesn’t help is looking the other way, switching off, avoiding facing the facts, being “too sensitive” to read or hear about them.


“….. for every animal of the forest is mine,” says the Lord,” and the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know every bird in the mountain, and the creatures of the field are mine.”  [Psalm 50, 10-11].  God’s, not ours, to be treated with respect and compassion.