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A Closer Look

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A Closer Look

Grass Isn’t Greener in the UK

Oct 18, 2010

Animal rights groups drive the media and public perception

By Jane Hillstrom, Hillstrom Communications
When things aren’t going well, it’s beneficial to listen to someone else’s story. How would you like to raise animals in the United Kingdom where media and public support for animal rights groups dominates the landscape? The activists’ influence shapes legislation and food purchases.
Due to the animal rights organizations’ power throughout the country, farmers operate under the Five Freedoms, which were established by the British government. These animal welfare guidelines “should be considered on farm, in transit, at market or place of slaughter.” They include freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain, injury or disease, the freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.
Last spring, animal rights activity in the UK amplified when Nocton Dairies submitted an application for an 8,100 head farm. Animal rights groups targeted Nocton blaming the trend on large dairies in the United States. As a result, an investigative news team from the BBC traveled to the U.S. to shoot dairy farms. The show has yet to air.
Dairy producer leaders — dairy producers, co-op VPs, and industry groups — also traveled to the U.S. to learn about larger farms. A representative accompanied the visiting UK delegation from the Royal Society for Protection of Animals (RSPCA). The RSPCA does not advocate vegetarianism but has for some time owned and endorsed a brand of welfare-friendly livestock and fish products including cheese, called “Freedom Foods.” The attending representative is their liaison with the farming sector. He appeared positive and realistic about the dairy industry, yet still a gatekeeper.
During the visit, the UK dairy producers spoke freely and openly about their challenges. The producers are accustomed to RSPCA’s presence. It is a variation on “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The animal rights groups hold considerable power with the media, the retail sector and the public making it difficult for agriculture to move forward without their support.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), an alliance of 1,000 member humane societies in 150 countries, created a website Notinmycuppa (cuppa means “a cup of tea”) to oppose Nocton Dairies. They applied the emotive word “battery” to dairy freestall barns and on the site, ask their viewers, “Would you drink factory milk from battery cows?”
Power comes in numbers and connections. The WSPA has “14 offices and hundreds of thousands of supporters worldwide” with a mission to bring “together people and organisations throughout the world to challenge global animal welfare issues.” They even have consultative status at the United Nations and the Council of Europe.
And if that weren’t enough, the UK’s popular media favors the animal rights groups. For example, a caption for an article in the Guardian on the proposed Nocton Dairies reads, “The £40m farm will condemn cows to a life inside a dark shed, according to rights group Viva.” And, some people think our media isn’t objective!
The rhetoric doesn’t go unanswered. Dairy producers tell their story through DairyCo (similar to Dairy Management Inc.), which proactively educates consumers on how milk is produced with its website, This is Dairy Farming, similar to the U.S. industry’s Dairy Farming Today. The site features farmers, describes on-farm animal care and environmental practices, and offers dairy facts and resources.
What can you do to make sure what happens in the UK stays in the UK? According to research studies, the U.S. public trusts dairy producers. Trust is built and maintained through communication. Create a farm brochure, website and business cards. Host an open house for your neighbors, speak at a service club meeting, and start a blog. What will you do this week to be an activist for dairy farming?
Jane Hillstrom owns Hillstrom Communications, a public relations firm, and is co-founder of Dairyland Digital, the owner of, an educational and networking website for people who work in agriculture. She can be reached at 920.839.5032 or
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