Over the course of her PhD research on the sustainability of cashmere production, Zara Morris – Trainor spent over a year living within a herding community in the Mongolian Gobi. In the following articles, she explore s each of the five freedoms of animal welfare and how they relate to cashmere production, based on her personal observations from the field. In Part 1 below, she reflects on the extent that these freedoms are being met, and not met, and the apparent trade – offs between them. In Part 2, she asks how achievable the five freedoms are across all livestock production systems, and points to the importance of understanding local context and complexity when working to improve welfare conditions in the livestock sector.
Part 1: The Five Freedoms and cashmere in the Mongolian Gobi
1. Freedom from thirst and hunger
Thirst: Goats in the Gobi experience thirst regularly throughout the year. They do not have constant access to fresh water. With the exception of a few open springs, water is primarily accessed through ground wells and herders either pump water mechanically into troughs or pull it up by hand. However, goats in the Gobi are able to go for long periods without water and, when they’re being watered, they are given opportunity to drink their fill and move on. In summer, goats are watered once or twice a day and in winter sometimes this may decline to every other day (goats often quench their thirst on snow in the winter months and thus require less water).
Hunger: There is a saying that goats in the Gobi starve every year. There is also a saying that goats are constantly hungry. Vegetation availability is very low during winter and spring and animals subsist on standing dead forage for a substantial part of the year. Some herds are given supplementary feed, but not all herders can afford to provide feed for the whole herd and will prioritise the young and weak animals. However, although forage availability is low, nutritional quality of the Gobi vegetation is considered to be high, with good levels of salts and minerals. So, although the quantity of food is low compared to other Mongolian regions, this might be compensated by quality of the vegetation. Although this doesn’t necessarily prevent goats from experiencing hunger.
2. Freedom from discomfort
There is no escaping the fact that life in the Gobi is full of discomfort. Goats (and people) have to withstand extreme heat during the summer and even more extreme cold during the winter. Goats have minimal access to shade. They also have to deal with drought, extreme winds and dust, sand and snowstorms. Most herds have access to shelters at their winter camp, although the size and quality of the shelters vary, and some herds have minimal barriers from the harsh winds.
Herds huddle together tightly to maintain warmth during the winter months. It should also be noted that these goats are very well adapted to these conditions. Over time there has been a joint process of natural and artificial selection that has created goats that are well suited to the harshness of the Gobi environment. According to the herders, you would struggle to bring goats from other parts of Mongolia to the Gobi…they just wouldn’t be equipped to cope with the climate, and they would also suffer from the change in diet. While living in an arid desert might seem uncomfortable to us, it does not necessarily cause the same level of discomfort for animals that are adapted to these conditions. Keep in mind that native wildlife also face these same conditions, but without the support of man-made wells, supplementary fodder, veterinary care and shelter.
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
Veterinary care for goats in the Gobi is not like it was during the Soviet era (Mongolia transitioned to a market economy in the early 1990s). Herders now have to pay privately for veterinary treatment and not all have the financial means to do so. It is also hard to access veterinary care as veterinarians generally reside in towns and no longer make regular visits around the countryside. As a result, if animals get sick or injured it might be a while before they can be treated, and some might not get treated at all. Those that do might not receive the best possible care due to financial and logistical constraints. Prevention efforts include vaccinations and nutritional supplements (e.g. mineral salts). With poor access to veterinary care, there is definitely a level of suffering that occurs amongst goat herds in the Gobi. That said, herders care hugely for their goats and are also financially motivated to maintain the health of their herd.
Castration: One common form of pain that is inflicted on male animals is castration. These are carried out by the herders and without anaesthetic. Castrations are usually done at around 6 months of age to prevent young billies from mating with females in the herd. It is very important to castrate all males other than the individuals that have been selected for breeding, otherwise the herders cannot control the breeding process and ensure the passing on of strong genetic traits. It is also a vital component of limiting herd sizes to that which can be maintained by the available pasture (thus promoting the health and well-being of the herd). The castration process is fast and is obviously a one-off occurrence in an animal’s lifetime. After removal, the testicles are boiled and made into a soup which is eaten by the herders. Thus, there is an element of cultural tradition in this practice, but there is no avoiding the fact that the castration process will be painful for the animal. NB: Perhaps it would be possible for herders to learn to administer anaesthetics to the livestock themselves, in order to reduce suffering, however the financial and training requirements would have to be considered if this was to be implemented on a national scale.
Slaughter: Goats are generally slaughtered for meat once they get older and the amount of cashmere they produce reduces (along with its quality). The slaughter process generally occurs as follows… (please skip to the next paragraph if you do not want to read this section): Goats are turned onto their backs and held by their legs. Herders then quickly plunge a sharp knife into the chest and cut the main aorta to ensure a fast death. Goats will struggle as the knife goes in but are typically dead a few seconds later. It is impossible to assess the level of suffering experienced by the goat in these moments and to what extent shock masks the pain. This method ensures a fast death and also prevents the spilling of blood which is considered taboo. Every part of the goat is utilised.
Cashmere combing: Every year, goats are combed to remove the downy under-layer of hair (the cashmere fibre) that moults at the beginning of spring, triggered by the first spring grass. Combing cannot begin until this time, as the fibres need to loosen naturally before they can be removed with combing. Herders use metal combs of different sizes. I am not aware of any herders in the Gobi that use shearing equipment to harvest cashmere. Combing ensures that the finer under-layer of hair is removed but the coarser guard hairs remain. This is preferable for the goats and also makes it an easier job for cashmere processors further down the supply chain.
Goats are often tied up to help keep them still during the combing process. Sometimes all four legs are tied together and sometimes their horns are tied with rope to the side of the ger and their back legs tied to a stake in the ground. Understandably, goats do not enjoy this and do cry out, probably from frustration at being immobilised. However, the actual combing can cause them pain. The ends of the combing teeth are sharp and can scratch the skin of the goat. Goat skin is tough, and I haven’t ever seen it be torn by the combs, however it is not uncommon to see the skin flake away (almost like dandruff). It’s hard to know how much discomfort the goats are in during the combing. There are ways the combing can be done to minimise it. These include combing more slowly and with more care not to yank the comb when it gets stuck in tangled hair. Using a wider toothed comb at the start and switching to finer toothed ones as the hair is worked loose helps prevent the comb from becoming stuck and reduces the amount of yanking required. Using large scissors to clip away some of the longer outer hairs prior to combing also reduces the level of snagging.
The time that it takes to comb a goat depends on its size, the length of its coat and the type of coat it has. Some breeds (such as the original Mongol breed) have more of the coarse, outer hair that needs to be clipped prior to combing, whilst others (such as the Russian Don breed) have thick, dense under-hair that is hard to work the comb through. On average, one goat will take an hour to remove all of its cashmere. Most of the herds in the area I was in consisted of Don/Mongol mixes and varied considerably on this spectrum. Generally, the goats with more Mongol hair type produce a lower yield of higher quality cashmere, whilst the Don goats produced high yield, low quality cashmere. Thus, there could be an ethical argument for encouraging the breeding of more Mongol-type goats, as these are easier to comb and should experience less discomfort during the combing process.
I have combed several goats and have been comfortable doing so. The majority of the time the goats lie calmly during the combing. Younger goats are more prone to call out when they are tied up, perhaps because they are less familiar with the process. Older goats seem to ‘know the drill’, so to speak. It is worth noting that I did not see any signs of distress after the goats were released.
Herders are under immense time pressure to comb all of the goats in their herd. It is incredibly laborious and one of the most challenging times of year. Those that can afford to hire help will do so, but most have to make do themselves or call on the help of family members. Herders must wait for the first of the spring grass to trigger the cashmere to moult before they can start combing, after which the herders are in a rush to get the cashmere to the market in order to get the best prices (cashmere generally reduces in price as the season goes on). So, whilst taking longer to comb the goats would reduce their discomfort, the time constraints of the herders also need to be taken into account.
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour
This aspect is where Mongolian livestock production really excels. Compared to many other livestock production systems around the world, it could be argued that Mongolian goats enjoy some of the greatest freedom to express normal behaviour. There are no fences, allowing goats to roam as they please. Some constraint is placed on their movements by herders to keep the goats within their informal grazing area, but these areas are very large, and goats become familiar with their ‘own territory’. Goats are creatures of habit and naturally gravitate toward their watering source at the time of day to be watered, and back to their herder’s camp at the end of the day, where they settle down to rest. Herders use very little coercion and force beyond their own voice and the occasional small stone, which is thrown to the side of a herd (not directly at the goats) when preventing them from moving in a particular direction. Lactating females are separated from their kids during the day so they can go out to the pasture and feed. The kids would not be strong enough to keep up with the herd, so they are kept back at the camp. That said, mothers rarely express distress at leaving their kids behind, probably motivated by their own desire to reach grazing pasture and to stay with the main herd.
Goats will willingly enter their winter shelters each night, often voluntarily forming queues to go through the gates. They are very content to wait around in the morning, even when they are not fenced within a corral or shelter, before the herder gives them the cue to set off for the day’s grazing. The goats spend all their time in the company of their herd, interacting with other goats and freely exploring their surroundings. The majority of herds have females and males together, so natural sexual behaviours can be carried out (although typically only one or two males are left entire). It really is as ‘free range’ as you could get.
5. Freedom from fear and distress
Some aspects relevant to this category have been covered in the sections above. Distress is experienced during times of thirst and hunger. Fear is likely to be experienced when the goats are being handled just prior to slaughter, as well as the obvious distress of the slaughter itself. Fear may be experienced during the cashmere combing, especially by the younger goats who are not yet familiar with the process and don’t know what to expect. Goats often give calls of distress as they are being tied up and while they are being combed. Another fear that goats are likely to experience is fear from predation, both during the day whilst out at pasture and at night in their corrals/shelters. Despite these causes of fear and distress, there is one major cause from which most livestock in the Gobi are protected from: transport.
Almost all goats in the Gobi do not have to experience being transported to livestock markets. In many other livestock production systems, the process of transporting livestock to the abattoir, sometimes considerable distances and in very cramped conditions, is an incredibly stressful experience. Once at the abattoir, animals are moved through en masse and subjected to even more distress, probably heightened by animals sensing each other’s fear. In contrast, most goats in the Gobi will die from natural causes or be slaughtered quickly at their camp, avoiding the distressing experience of transport and abattoirs.
How achievable are the five freedoms?
One problem with the five freedoms is that it is almost impossible to imagine a livestock production system where all of five freedoms are met. This raises pertinent ethical and practical questions for global livestock production, including cashmere. For example, to what extent can a system fail in meeting the five freedoms and yet still be considered acceptable? Can a production system that requires the animal slaughter meet these freedoms? Is any form of discomfort or distress acceptable? And if so, what are we willing to accept?
Considering the cashmere goats’ experience in light of these five freedoms, further questions emerge…
Can (and should) we prioritise any of these freedoms? Which do we consider most important? Which can we say is absolutely necessary, regardless of any constraints? Some might consider freedom from pain to be the most important whilst others might feel that living a happy, relatively ‘natural’ life should be the highest priority. It could be argued that nature itself is not pain-free… animals in the wild get sick, they’re caught and eaten by predators, they die of starvation… When it comes to livestock, who are essentially being raised for our consumption and use, you could argue that it is our responsibility to minimise their suffering wherever possible. But maybe completely removing suffering is not possible, if the production system is to exist at all. As demonstrated by the cashmere industry, there might be trade-offs between different freedoms. In Mongolia, goats have extensive freedom to roam and express their natural behaviours, however the very nature of this freedom, and the fact they are raised in harsh, semi-arid rangelands, has consequences for other freedoms. Goats will be hungry and thirsty; they will be subjected to extreme temperatures and weather events and they will be far from veterinary access. Achieving freedom in all aspects might not be that simple.
Another issue to consider is the clash between human and animal welfare. In Mongolia, goats are a source of food as well of cashmere. If goats and other species of livestock were not slaughtered for meat, people would not be able to survive. From my experience of living in the Gobi, killing an animal is not something that is taken lightly. In fact, herders care an awful lot for their animals and have empathy for them. There are strict taboos and cultural practices surrounding the slaughter of animals, such as avoiding the words ‘kill’ or ‘dead’, and not spilling (and therefore wasting) any of the animal’s blood. I think this points to the level of respect herders feel towards their animals. They attend to health issues to the best of their capabilities and they try hard to make death as fast and pain-free as possible. Goats are typically killed before their teeth get so worn down that they struggle to eat. By slaughtering them before they get to this point, herders prevent goats from suffering in old age. If goats do not die by slaughter, they can die from disease or predation from large carnivores.
Perhaps the five freedoms are challenged, at least in some respects, by livestock production systems that are slightly more ‘natural’. By this, I mean systems that are extensive, utilising large areas that are typically remote and also shared by wildlife. Essentially these systems are at the opposite end of the scale from intensive farming systems and operate more how we would consider a natural ecosystem to function. The Mongolian Gobi is one such system. In the Gobi, people, livestock and wildlife live alongside each other and are all, in their different ways, doing what they need to do to survive.
What you have in the Gobi, and the rest of Mongolia, is a system of fibre production that is tightly linked with people’s livelihoods and an ancient pastoral culture. That said, I think that anyone wearing a cashmere jumper should be aware of where that jumper came from…. aware of the approximately four goats that provided fibre to make it, the herders that have raised those goats, the challenges facing the sustainability of the rangelands that the goats grazed on. They should be aware of the life that those goats are living, the annual combing to harvest the cashmere and the eventual deaths they will face. These are the unavoidable realities of the cashmere production system, and to purchase an item of cashmere you need to acknowledge this and feel okay with it.
That is not to say that all possible efforts to improve animal welfare should not be made. Animal welfare is closely linked to the overall sustainability of cashmere production systems. It is linked to the health of cashmere goats, which in turn affects longevity, the amount of cashmere produced and the quality of the fibre. Animal welfare is linked to moral values, which form a subset of wider cultural values and an important component of cultural sustainability. If there are ways of reducing suffering, then those practices should be explored. However, we need to be aware of the entire production system, including the constraints that the herders are working under, if changes are to be viable and improve production practices in the long term.
Animal welfare is intertwined with many of the ethical, political, social, economic and ecological aspects livestock production. Thus, SFA view high animal welfare standards as a fundamental component of sustainability. We have developed a cashmere-specific sustainability standard that will take social, ecological and welfare considerations into account. Through its associated Animal Husbandry Code of Practice, we are working to ensure that animal welfare practices are monitored and improved across all cashmere-producing regions. If implemented on a wide scale, we have the potential to facilitate a large-scale shift towards a responsible cashmere industry.
Please include a “Read more” link to https://goatsandgers.wordpress.com
Link to the SFA Animal Husbandry Code of Practice
Lotti has recently completed her an MSc in Ethics in Fashion from Heriot-Watt University with a Masters with Distinction. She is now continuing to develop her research on the cashmere supply chain as well as continuing her work as a writer and project manager in both the fashion and textiles industries.
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