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What shelter do cows and other farm animals need?

I was driving from Oamaru to Timaru the other day and saw heaps of cows in paddocks standing under the hot sun with no trees or shade. Is there no requirement to provide shelter for cows and other animals?

In New Zealand, a variety of animals are kept outdoors. This exposes them to a range of elements and changes in the weather and climate, with significant variations to conditions both daily and seasonally. Persistent rain and snow, combined with wind, extreme temperatures and high UV index readings can pose a significant risk to the health and welfare of these animals.

Unfortunately, many animals in New Zealand are not provided with sufficient shade and shelter to protect them from exposure to the country’s variable environmental conditions. It is common for shade and shelter to consist only of vegetative or topographical features, which is often insufficient. As a result, animals can experience physical and physiological harm, such as heat or cold stress, which can lead to significant suffering and sometimes even death.

Cold and wet winters have seen high numbers of lamb mortalities; and hot dry summers have led to heat stroke and even death for animals in this country. There is an urgent requirement to provide effective shade and shelter to prevent animals from suffering. The shade and shelter provided must be adequate to protect all of the animals from exposure to anticipated weather conditions, and must be appropriate for the species.

Shelter should provide protection from all possible weather conditions, including the sun, rain, wind and snow. Shelter can also be considered to extend to providing protection from humans, herd mates, and predators. Shade provides protection from the heat and the UV rays of the sun.

In many extensive farming systems and in other situations where animals are kept outdoors, shelter or shade is commonly provided by way of vegetation (scrub, tussock, rushes, long grass, shelterbelts, shade belts and plantations), topography (rocks and ridges, and dips in hills) and other animals (by huddling together).

In many cases, these forms of shade and shelter are insufficient to protect the animals from the extreme and variable weather conditions experienced in New Zealand. Therefore, all animals kept outside should be provided with access to man-made shelter (e.g. shade cloth, huts, sheds or barns), as well as access to natural shelter, where possible. This is especially important when animals may be close to giving birth – it is vital to provide protection for both newborn animals and dams (mothers) – and for those animals that have undergone standard husbandry practices, such as shearing, that may make them more vulnerable to the impacts of the weather.

Under New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act 1999, there is a requirement that adequate shelter is provided for animals, but unfortunately, requiring the provision of adequate shelter and then enforcing compliance with providing shelter is not straightforward, especially given the variety of properties that keep animals, which range from small lifestyle blocks to large commercial farms.

Some of the new animal welfare regulations that have been announced for New Zealand (those relating to young calves have been enacted already) are a step towards trying to address this issue. These include: the requirement for pigs to have access to shelter and a dry lying area; tethered goats to have access to shelter; and for young calves to have shelter before transportation, at points of sale, slaughter, and during transportation.

There are no other current regulations requiring the provision of shade and shelter to other animals. However, in order for people in charge of animals to meet their obligations under the Animal Welfare Act, the minimum standards in the codes of welfare do include the need to provide shelter to protect animals from any reasonably expected climatic conditions likely to compromise their welfare and survival.

It is not known exactly how the changing climate will affect New Zealand and what this will mean for animals outside and their shelter needs. However, all likely scenarios indicate changes that will have some impact on animal health and welfare. Proactively addressing shelter issues now should not only provide for the needs of animals currently kept outside, but should also help to mitigate the impact of climate change on animal welfare into the future.

Have you got a question you’d like Dr Sarah Zito to answer? Please email it to animalsvoice@spca.nz and it could be chosen for our next column.

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