Meet our researchers - Dr Siobhan Abeyesinghe

Description

Dr Siobhan Abeyesinghe is Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour & Welfare Science at the Royal Veterinary College and heads up the RVC Animal Welfare Science & Ethics team. Siobahn's AWF funded research project entitled "Breeding for better broiler welfare: balancing sustainability, economic and consumer preferences" focusses on exploring the opportunities, challenges and information-gaps in transitioning production of broiler (meat) chickens to higher welfare production.

Q: Can you introduce yourself?

I am an Associate Professor in Animal Behaviour & Welfare Science at the Royal Veterinary College and I head up the RVC Animal Welfare Science & Ethics team. I apply science to understand how animals perceive their world and how we can improve their welfare. My background is in animal behaviour & welfare science focussing mostly on poultry, although I have worked with dogs, pigs, deer and people too! As well as research I teach undergraduate and postgraduate students. I am also a Council member of UFAW (Universities Federation for Animal Welfare) and a Trustee for the Humane Slaughter Association (HSA). These are small but mighty charities like AWF who generate, promote and value the importance of scientific evidence in safeguarding animal welfare.

Q: What are you currently working on and what does it involve?

I am working on a range of different projects at the moment. I am lucky enough to be collaborating on an inter-disciplinary project with some incredible scientists, Jessica Martin and Jasmine Clarkson at Newcastle, Dorothy McKeegan at Glasgow (whose lectureship was originally funded by AWF), Simone Meddle at Edinburgh and Ngaio Beausoleil at Massey in New Zealand, to understand whether chickens undergoing gas stunning may experience air hunger or breathlessness, which in humans is associated with profound anxiety. This is incredibly important as chickens are the most numerous terrestrial farm animal and globally 72 billion chickens are slaughtered each year. If we find evidence for air hunger in chickens, then we have a place to start for finding solutions. I am incredibly grateful to AWF for funding my main project at the moment which is focussed on exploring the opportunities, challenges and information-gaps in transitioning production of broiler (meat) chickens to higher welfare production. Again, I am fortunate to be working with a great team encompassing multidisciplinary expertise (Christine Nicol, Jackie Cardwell, Mehroosh Tak and Imogen Stanley at RVC in collaboration with Daniel Parker at Slate Hall Veterinary Practice and Sol Cuevas Garcia-Dorado at LHSTM). The Better Chicken Commitment is a statement of commitment to higher welfare practices in the production of broiler chickens by 2026, including using slower growing broiler breeds with reduced stocking density and environmental improvements compared to conventional production. This pledge was generated by animal welfare campaign organisations in a bid to improve broiler welfare and many UK food service companies and restaurant chains have signed up to the commitment, but few retailers or independent food service providers have followed. Our project focusses on drawing together existing information and addressing major knowledge gaps to better understand the concerns around this issue and to inform veterinary advice to producers on adoption of higher-welfare breeds.

Q: What made you apply for the AWF grant?

I applied for the AWF grant because of AWF’s understanding of the importance of an evidence-base to support progress in animal welfare, their promotion of welfare beyond health alone and their clarity in priority issues for different species from previous funded research which mapped to my research focus. The research theme of “Breeding for Better Welfare” encompassed drivers for change, in this case demand for slower growing breeds, and thus allowed me to begin to investigate a complex system with many stakeholders.

Q: What fuelled your passion to study the topic?

There is a large body of scientific evidence, including some of my own work, demonstrating that slower growing broilers show significantly better welfare outcomes compared to conventional broilers, but there has been little change in how UK broilers are produced. I wanted to explore why this important research was having little impact in the UK and what the barriers are, when other countries such as Holland, are transforming their production. It became clear that not only is this a much more complex problem than first apparent because there are implications for environmental sustainability and costs, but that there are also major gaps in much needed information and some stakeholder concerns around the quality of some of the existing evidence, where information does exist. To understand the true issues and to develop solutions to feasibly and sustainably improving broiler welfare these uncertainties must be addressed.

Q: What is your favourite aspect of the project?

I am learning a lot from this research and as usual finding there is even more to learn! I am enjoying gaining a better understanding different stakeholder perspectives on production with slower growing broilers and the Better Chicken Commitment. More broadly I am also fascinated by the conceptualisations and assessment of animal welfare within sustainability and the potential opportunities to progress this.

Q: Why is this project important/necessary?

Over 1 billion broilers are produced for meat per annum in the UK alone and by far the majority of this production is with conventional birds. We estimate that even an additional 5% transition of conventional producers to higher welfare chicken production would improve the welfare of ~50 million birds in the UK per annum, which is a massive potential positive impact for bird welfare. However, the uncertainties around the holistic implications of such a transition in production mean that change is currently an unacceptable risk for producers. A major problem is that there is no information on UK consumer understanding, expectations and views around broiler production in the context the Better Chicken Commitment and potential trade-offs between animal welfare, environmental sustainability and costs, particularly in the context of the current economic climate and trade agreements. This is a critical knowledge gap. Although we know that, in general, consumers expect high welfare, only a relatively small proportion appear to be willing or perhaps able to actually purchase higher welfare chicken in practice. So we need to better understand this contradiction and how consumers conceptualise high welfare.

Q: What do you enjoy the most about your job as a researcher?

As an animal welfare scientist, I am privileged to have the opportunity to try and understand animal minds and to provide scientific evidence to support animal perspectives on their experiences. This is an incredible, inspiring creative and fulfilling challenge for me, particularly because what I do has the potential to make a real difference for animals. I get to investigate a diversity of issues, work with incredibly talented people in different discipline and roles and I am always learning.

Q: What would you like to achieve with your research/project?

I hope that this project with inspire more inter-disciplinary work to tackle the issues around poultry welfare in sustainable production and ultimately, along with the other amazing work various other research groups are undertaking, help us to move forward with improving broiler welfare in a feasible way.

Q: What advice would you give to someone looking for a similar career?

Research has to be about good science, not just your love of animals, even if that is what drives your passion. Sometimes we do not get the answers we expect and we need to remain open to this. That is particularly true in the context of animal welfare to avoid falling prey to anthropomorphism and potentially mis-managing welfare from the animal’s perspective. While research can be creative and very rewarding, it is competitive, difficult and it can take a long time for the ‘pay off’, so you need to develop resilience to setbacks and problems. If you are interested in a career in animal welfare, there are a number of undergraduate and postgraduate courses available in animal welfare, including a Batchelors degree in Animal Biology, Behaviour Welfare & Ethics at RVC. A number of fantastic funders including AWF, UFAW and HSA also provide grants for students on various animal-related degree programmes to undertake animal welfare research projects which allow students to get a taster in animal welfare research. These require supervisors so its worth contacting a welfare scientist who is working in an area you are interested in to see if they might be able to supervise a project, or if they have any other opportunities within their labs! AWF, UFAW and HSA also host conferences on animal welfare where you can find out about the latest research. You can also join as a member of a number of organisations and societies associated with animal welfare research and connecting professionals including UFAW, HSA, International Society for Applied Ethology, Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare Science Ethics and Law Veterinary Association.  Its also worth checking out the Animal Welfare Research Network as this connects welfare scientists and you can find information about ongoing research and various career opportunities there.