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Towards the improvement of sheep welfare: Exploring the use of qualitative behavioural assessment (QBA) for the monitoring and assessment of sheep

Taylor, Emily (2021) Towards the improvement of sheep welfare: Exploring the use of qualitative behavioural assessment (QBA) for the monitoring and assessment of sheep. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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Challenges faced by sheep in Australia in terms of disease, injury and management may compromise not only health and productivity but also welfare. These challenges represent a growing concern for both producers and the public. Hence there is an obvious need for the development of measures to allow producers, who may have limited access to stock or are constrained by time and/or resource availability, to monitor their sheep. There is a clear benefit to producers being able to readily identify animals whose welfare might be compromised and thus are in need of further care. However, the assessment of animal welfare is challenging under commercial conditions and to date, few measures are available to help producers recognise animals in compromised welfare states. Qualitative behavioural assessment (QBA) is an approach that captures the expressive behaviour of an animal, through the integration and summary of details of behavioural events, posture, and movement. In this way, QBA represents a valuable tool that offers insight into the physical and physiological aspects of animal welfare, and when used in conjunction with other key measures helps to provide a more complete and comprehensive picture of an animal’s welfare state. Furthermore, QBA should be used together with other welfare measures, where it has been proposed to guide the interpretation of welfare data. As a welfare tool, QBA has been applied to assess the behavioural expression in numerous livestock species including pigs and cattle, however, this methodology is less well studied in sheep and more work is needed to validate QBA for practical application.

The aim of the research described in this thesis was to investigate whether the QBA methodology could be applied to assess the welfare of sheep subject to various welfare issues relevant to the Australian sheep industry. To this end, over four experimental chapters, QBA was applied to video footage captured of sheep in various states of compromised welfare, including those suffering from common injury and diseases; lameness, inappetence, flystrike, and gastro-intestinal parasitism, and those experiencing pain caused by routine husbandry procedures (ear tagging, castration, mulesing, and tail docking). Moreover, in two experimental chapters (Chapters 4 & 6), video footage was captured of sheep in positive welfare states (reduced gastro-intestinal parasite burden, and habituation to human presence). This video footage was also analysed quantitatively and other welfare measures including those of health/disease status, physical condition and locomotive activity were collected for validation purposes in each study.

Over four experimental chapters, it was demonstrated that observers, blind to experimental procedures and treatments, can reach a significant consensus in their interpretation and assessment of the behavioural expression of sheep, and that these assessments can relate meaningfully to the welfare state of the animal. In Chapter 3, observers were able to distinguish between flystruck and non-flystruck sheep using the QBA methodology, and the behavioural expression scores given to each sheep corresponded to the severity of strike and the condition of the wool. In Chapter 4, observers identified differences in the behavioural expression of sheep that related to the severity of gastro-intestinal parasitism (subclinical v. clinical). Moreover, it was discovered that the treatment of sheep to lessen gastro-intestinal parasite burden altered the behavioural expression of parasitised sheep. A significant consensus was also reached amongst observers in the assessment of lambs subject to routine husbandry procedures (ear tagging, castration, mulesing, and tail docking) in Chapter 5. Observers were able to distinguish lambs that were subject to these painful husbandry procedures and were administered either a placebo or analgesics (Tri-Solfen® and meloxicam), from the control lambs which were only restrained. Hence suggesting that the pain caused by these husbandry procedures alters the behavioural patterns and demeanour of lambs in a way that is identifiable to observers using the QBA methodology. Lastly, when observers viewed video footage of sheep traversing a walk-over-weigh (WoW) apparatus in Chapter 6, they were able to distinguish sheep that were either lame or habituated to the test apparatus and human presence, from the control animals. However, in this Chapter, observers were not able to distinguish between all treatment groups evaluated based on their behavioural expression, specifically differences in the demeanour of inappetent and control sheep was not evident, nor were observers able to distinguish between lame and habituated sheep.

In summary, the research presented in this thesis indicates that assessments of behavioural expression can be used under most of those conditions investigated to distinguish sheep in poor welfare states due to injury or disease, from those that are healthy. Furthermore, it appears that observers can reliably identify differences in behavioural expression related to positive welfare states. This work has detailed the behavioural expression of sheep as perceived by observers and has led to a greater understanding of the behavioural expression of sheep in different welfare states. It appears that through the assessment of demeanour or body language, QBA offers both relevant and valid assessments which may help producers gain an insight into the welfare state of their sheep. It is suggested that when used in conjunction with other select behavioural measures, QBA may represent a valuable tool for producers to improve the welfare of sheep in their care.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): Agricultural Sciences
Supervisor(s): Miller, David, Anderson, Fiona, Barnes, Anne, Fleming, Trish and Wickham, Sarah
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