WelFur – let the animals speak

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This month is a proud one for the European fur sector. The European Fur Breeders’ Association publishes its animal welfare protocols for mink and fox, and, in my opinion, this may well mark the beginning of a new chapter in European agricultural industries. The WelFur protocols contain more than 30 years of animal welfare science for fur farmed species and as such WelFur is the new scientific reference for animal welfare in fur farmed species.

The protocols are also the foundation of the most comprehensive animal welfare system in the world (named WelFur too). The system is based on the methodology of the European Commission’s Welfare Quality project, but contrary to Welfare Quality, the WelFur assessment system is being put to work out there on the farms. The implementation has already started in Finland, and in the course of the next few years, WelFur will be implemented on all European fur farms associated with the European Fur Breeders’ Association. This is 95% or more of the European fur farms.

WelFur has three overall purposes:

1) To provide a scientifically valid animal welfare assessment system.

2) To provide transparency about the animal welfare standards on European fur farms.

3) To be a toolbox which will make it possible for fur farmers to point out any areas where animal welfare can be improved on the fur farm.

WelFur is outstanding in animal agriculture, and I strongly believe that other animal industries sooner or later will have to demonstrate the same willingness to transparency and improvement of animal welfare.

Why the fur breeders are first to go all-in with such a comprehensive animal welfare system? Well, I am not about to say that fur farmers care more about their animals than other animal farmers, even if animal welfare standards can be read directly in the payoff per skin. But in the ongoing process where pressure from the surrounding society leads to new standards (in any industry, I guess), I think the European fur farmers have been exposed to more pressure than most other animal industries. WelFur is the answer to the criticism.

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You can read more about WelFur here, and WelFur will certainly be a subject for further reading on Fur for Thought in the months to come. For now I will just underline a few points: WelFur is a 100% scientifically valid project. Independent scientists from 7 European universities and institutions have developed the project, and external scientific reviewers have been appointed to conserve the quality of the scientific work. Secondly, WelFur (and the original Welfare Quality project) differ from most current animal welfare assessments by focusing intensely on animal based measures.

Today, most controls of animal welfare standards concentrate on regulatory compliance (e.g. measuring the size of the cage). In WelFur about half of the measurements are animal-based which means that various observations of the animals are the foundation of the ‘welfare score’. The assessors (third-party assessors, that is, assessors not from the industry itself) must look at the animals carefully to find out if their behavior and temper corresponds with good animal welfare. This is truly revolutionary in modern animal agriculture, and there is scientific consensus that animal-based measures are the best way to measure animal welfare. It is however, not always the optimal solution. For an example it is difficult to see if an animal is thirsty by observing the animal. If instead the animal always has access to fresh water you can conclude that the animal is not thirsty, why a resource-based measure is preferred to an animal-based in this case.

WelFur will measure the welfare standards on all fur farms by a score ranging from 0 to 100. For fur farmers the scorecard will make it easy to point out where he can improve animal welfare on the farm. For the public, the system provides an easy-to-understand (and scientifically reliable) overview of welfare standards. It will take more time before we have enough results to publish welfare reports from fur farms, but as a communicator I really look forward to do so. In Europe, we fight a lot with public assumptions based on images of a few wounded animals – WelFur will certainly help us counter those images.

The publishing of the WelFur protocols is a milestone in the European fur industry. June 2013 is a proud month for us.

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