Laws that protect the welfare of horses, cattle and pigs in Sweden have strengthened in recent decades, researchers have found, although the number of specific legal requirements have been relaxed.
Frida Lundmark Hedman, Charlotte Berg and Margareta Stéen, writing in the journal Animals, charted 30 years of change in Sweden’s animal welfare legislation, and looked at the current state of its laws.
The trio, with the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, noted that Sweden is often cited as a leading country in animal welfare and related legislation.
They scrutinised suggested changes to the Swedish welfare legislation between 1988 and 2019 relating to horses, cattle and pigs, including the written motivations, the written stakeholder responses and the actual changes to the final regulations.
They used a sample of 77 legal requirements to assess whether the animal welfare level was affected by these changes in the legislation.
The results showed that animal welfare requirements in the country for horses, cattle and pigs increased overall during the 30-year study period, but that several specific requirements had been relaxed to satisfy interests other than animal welfare.
“It was more difficult to determine whether animal welfare improved in practice during the same period, due to the lack of systematic evaluations of the consequences of amending the regulations,” they said.
Future evaluations are needed to evaluate the outcome of new laws and to monitor whether they serve their purpose in practice.
Sweden has had requirements regarding allowing animals to perform their natural behaviours since the Animal Welfare Act of 1988, including mandating summer pasture for dairy cows and banning sow crates and battery cages for laying hens.
The most recent Animal Welfare Act in Sweden, introduced in April 2019, pushes the animal welfare position further. It states not only that animals should be allowed to express their natural behaviours and be protected against unnecessary suffering, but also that good animal welfare should be ensured, animal well‐being should be promoted, and all animals should be shown respect.
Animal welfare legislation in Sweden is enacted at three levels. Parliament is responsible for the Animal Welfare Act, where the overall aims and frames concerning animal welfare are set. The government is responsible for the Animal Welfare Ordinance, which is also written in quite general terms, while the Swedish Board of Agriculture is responsible for the national regulations concerning animal welfare.
The authors said that the latter has updated animal welfare regulations for cattle, pigs and horses multiple times since 1988, with 20 updates for cattle, 16 for pigs and 11 for horses.
They noted that animal welfare regulations for horses were very scarce in 1989, and horses were excluded from most of the existing requirements concerning animal housing and management until 1993.
The requirements were extended in 1993 to cover horses, stating, for example that horses must be kept clean, given daily attention and supervision, have well‐trimmed hooves, have access to nutritious feed and have a dry and clean stable with a satisfactory indoor climate.
However, only horses bred and kept for “competition purposes” were covered by the regulations at that time, while for other horses, the requirements were intended only as general advice. In 2003, the regulations were extended to all horses.
The most comprehensive amendments concerning horses were made in 2007, when the Swedish Animal Welfare Agency introduced additional requirements regarding enabling horses’ need for social contact, providing daily exercise in paddocks or similar areas, limiting the time for which horses could be tied in stalls, and banning the building of new stables with tie stalls.
In 2018, the Swedish Board of Agriculture revised the horse regulations more structurally than contextually, in order to make them more goal‐oriented and flexible and less detailed.
Since 1989, the number of animal welfare requirements concerning horses has increased from 4 to 50.
The authors noted that regulations tend to set out the minimum level of animal welfare, not the best possible level. “So a change in the regulations may mean that one minimum requirement is replaced with another minimum requirement.”
They said an improved protection level does not necessarily mean improved animal welfare. “While it can be assumed that many of the improvements in the regulations lead to better animal welfare in practice at the farm level, the amendments would need to be evaluated more systematically and in greater detail in order to verify this correlation.”
They said animal welfare regulations exist to protect animals, but amendments are not based solely on new scientific findings relating to animal welfare per se.
“On the contrary, several other aspects, such as politics, economics, geographically conditioned land, and climate constraints and society’s views, also affect the legislation.”
According to its government mandate, in addition to striving for good animal welfare, the Swedish Board of Agriculture must also improve the competitiveness of Swedish farmers and enable an increase in Swedish food production. “Such directions will sometimes result in relaxation of the animal welfare regulations.”
Hedman, Berg and Stéen said their study does not point to an ideal way of writing or amending legislation, nor does it identify an ideal level of animal protection to be specified in legislation.
“The results can nevertheless serve as a useful tool for public or private policymakers to improve transparency in the commentary process and reveal the delicate balance between different interests in this process.”
Lundmark Hedman, F.; Berg, C.; Stéen, M. Thirty Years of Changes and the Current State of Swedish Animal Welfare Legislation. Animals 2021, 11, 2901. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11102901