Work Package 3: Detail



Prenatal and early-postnatal environment, and animal welfare

The aim of WP3 is to form an experimental model to test in a controlled manner how three major resource based factors that we see on a farm influence welfare of pregnant females and their offspring, namely animal density, group size and human handling. In addition to many of the animal-based welfare measures from WP1 and partly WP 2, WP3 will have more focus on behavioural, physiological as well as brain measures that are difficult to use directly when assessing welfare in commercial herds. The species represented in this WP are goats, sheep and horses. The following sub-aims are made:

  • To study the impact of group size and animal density during pregnancy on behaviour and welfare of ewes, goats and their offspring
  • To study the impact of positive and negative handling during pregnancy on offspring development and welfare in sheep and goats.
  • To study the impact of changes in group structure in loose-housed mares, the loss of a previous foal due to artificial weaning, and individual vs. indoor and outdoor (with a stallion present) group housing on behaviour and welfare of the mothers and offspring

In 1), the three following densities and group sizes, respectively, will be used for ewes and goats: 1, 2, or 3 m2 per animal and: 6, 12 and 24 animals. The handling experiment includes a positive, negative and a minimal treatment, with one large experiment in sheep and one smaller in goats based on the results from the first sheep experiment. The experimental methods on the horse part of this WP are based on common conditions and routine needs of a National stud in the Czech Republic.


Detailed information

WP 3.1 Prenatal social environment in sheep and goats – effects of group size and animal densities

We will determine the impact that variability in density and group size may have on social behaviour and welfare of pregnant ewes and goats, maternal abilities as well as offspring survival and cognitive, behavioural and physical development. Three different densities and group sizes will be tested. Besides some physical and physiological parameters, observation of social interactions will be in focus, as social behavioural patterns are assumed to be the most sensitive tool in measuring reaction to changes in the social environment. Welfare indicators used in WP1, such as body weight, skin lesions, body condition score etc will be recorded. After giving birth, early mother-young interactions will be observed. We will also follow closely the behavioural development as well as the development of cognitive skills in the offspring. In addition to the main treatment effects, we will assess the influence of individual temperament of the pregnant mothers (reactivity type) on coping efficiency, social strategy and how this relates to offspring survival and development. Social interactions also include positive or affiliative relationships within the groups. A few post mortem samples of lamb and kid brains from the social treatments will be collected to study the organisation of stress responsive systems and dendrite structure in the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

WP 3.2 Handling during pregnancy in sheep and goats

In this study we will investigate whether negative (loud, unpredictable, erratic), minimal (only that required to provide for husbandry with little interaction with the animals) or positive (calm, quiet, gentling) handling either in mid or late pregnancy affects offspring development in sheep. Although sheep may have a low level of human contact for much of the year, they are often housed in mid to late pregnancy until after the lambs are born, however there have been few studies to investigate whether the way in which they are handled in this period can influence their offspring. The impact on the mother during the handling will be assessed using physiological and behavioural markers of stress and welfare, including brain measures, and by assessment of the quality and quantity of maternal care shown to the offspring. The effect on the offspring will be investigated by assessing the social, behavioural and cognitive development of the lamb at specific points during the neonatal, pre- and post-weaning development of the lambs. This study will define whether the nature of handling during periods in pregnancy will affect the future welfare of the offspring. Having determined the specific periods when welfare may be most influenced, we will conduct a second experiment to ask whether similar responses are also seen in a related species, the goat.

WP 3.3 Prenatal environment in horses – consequences of social environment

The aims are to study the impact of common situations of events affecting social environment during pregnancy in domestic horses, including changes in group structure in loosed housed mares, transporting the mares for exhibitions, competitions or races during early pregnancy, and loss of a previous foal due to artificial weaning, on behaviour and welfare of the mothers as well as survival, growth, behavioural development and welfare of the offspring subjected to these prenatal conditions. Groups of pregnant mares will be observed to test the hypothesis that changes in group structure inducing social tension and stress have negative impact on pregnant mares and their foal development. Social behaviour, including agonistic as well as friendly interactions will be recorded and stress levels assessed using saliva and hair samples. Further, the effect of “work load” on pregnancy and foal development will be studied. The foals will be artificially weaned at different age. Suckling behaviour and mother- foal interactions will be observed to assess the dependency of the foal on the mother, as well as the level of stress during weaning. Stress level of the horses (glucocorticoids) will be analysed from saliva and hair. In foals, growth, social agonistic and positive friendly interactions will be recorded.

WP 3.4 Prenatal environment in horses – consequences of farm management and housing conditions

The aims of this work package are to study the effects of farm management and housing conditions during pregnancy in domestic horses on welfare of the mothers, foetal loss and survival, development and welfare of the foals subjected to these prenatal conditions. The welfare protocols developed in WP1 will be applied on the farms with different horse management and housing conditions. The most commonly used housing systems will be studied: individual box housing, loose group indoor housing, and 24/7 type management of a harem containing a stallion. The horses on each farm, including pregnant mares, will be subjected to welfare assessment according to the protocols developed in WP1 in two periods; firstly, when most of the mares will be in the last trimester of pregnancy; and secondly, before weaning of the foals born to the mothers that were observed during pregnancy. All horses on the farm will be tested unless the number of mares exceeds 24 animals. In that case 24 horses will be randomly selected. The breeders will be asked for further information about each of the observed mares: age, breed, reproductive history, if and how many times she was mated, if she was detected pregnant, if she was ridden during pregnancy, if she attended or was transported for competition during pregnancy, etc.

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