Natural behaviour, one of the elements identified in the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, is an increasingly polarising question when it comes to farm animal welfare. Contrary to what may appear logical to some, what is natural may not always be good for welfare.

Polarised conversations on the use of cages in farming often focus on the debate as to whether farms should fit with the animals, or the other way around. On one side of the debate is the position held by animal lobby groups, who believe animal welfare can only be upheld in free-range housing systems, as only free-range housing systems can accommodate natural behaviours.

While natural behaviour clearly has importance for animal welfare, it is however disturbing to boil something as complex as animal welfare down to simplistic concepts such as – “free-range is good, confinement is bad”. We must not forget that natural behaviours for animals include such instincts as expressing dominance. The hierarchical nature of egg-laying hens is for example the direct reason why the mortality rate is twice as high in free-range housing systems compared to enriched cages. For the animal who is free to be pecked at by dominant animals in the herd, a free-range housing system will not necessarily help with ensuring good animal welfare. 

This serves as an example of why simplistic approaches to animal welfare, perhaps based on our own human thoughts and feelings, may actually decrease rather than improve levels of animal welfare on the whole. 

What is ‘natural’ is not necessarily ‘good’ in animal welfare terms, and free-range systems are not best per definition, just because the word ‘free’ resonates in such a powerful way with almost everyone, as world leading animal welfare scientist Marian Stamp Dawkins puts it. Instead, she says, our guidance to good animal welfare goes through the knowledge animal welfare research can provide us:

“Do captive animals want to do all the things their wild counterparts do, or do they find plentiful food without having to hunt for it preferable? The connection between ‘natural’ and ‘good’ welfare becomes something that has to be established with facts by looking at the animals themselves, not just by making romantic assumptions about what life in the wild might be like.”[ref]Marian S. Dawkins (2012), Why Animals Matter, Oxford University Press[/ref]

Through so-called choice tests, in which animals’ motivation for different resources are measured through the workload they are willing to put up with to get access to the resource, can provide very good scientific knowledge on the preferences of animals. Such tests have documented the high importance of dust baths for hens, and nest building for mink, both behaviours found in the domesticated species’ wild counterparts. The same kind of tests however, have documented that access to swimming water is not particularly important to the farmed mink, demonstrating that to the extent in which you can ask the animals themselves, natural behaviours can both be important and not important. Whether they are is a matter of science, not emotion. 

Implications for Welfare, Productivity and Sustainability of the Variation in Reported Levels of Mortality for Laying Hen Flocks Kept in Different Housing Systems: A Meta-Analysis of Ten Studies)