Aarhus University Seal

Methods to assess animal welfare in natural national parks are lacking

Researchers from Aarhus University suggest to develop protocols for assessing animal welfare in natural national parks with a focus on nutrition, environment, health and behaviour. The suggested approach is transparent and systematic and allow for documentation of the welfare of the animals over time. Implementation of the approach across countries can be a platform for international knowledge sharing between projects.

[Translate to English:] For at overvåge dyrevelfærden for de store græssere i danske naturnationalparker er der, ifølge forskere fra Aarhus Universitet, behov for et systematisk og valideret velfærdsvurderingssystem. Foto: Colourbox.
Researchers from Aarhus University suggest to develop protocols for assessing animal welfare in natural national parks with a focus on nutrition, environment, health and behaviour. Photo: Colourbox.

A number of natural national parks in Denmark are currently being planned and established with large grazers as an integral part. The purpose of including large grazers, such as cattle and horses, in natural national parks is nature conservation. However, using large grazers for nature conservation may cause a risk for welfare problems for the large grazers. For example, some of the animals maybe starvomng for periods as a result of insufficient food. Further the animal may experience pain and discomfort as a result of injuries, as well as the strain caused by extreme temperatures, insect pests or parasites.  

As the welfare of animals kept outside throughout the year has not been a research focus area, there is a lack of scientifically based systems for evaluating welfare in year-round grazing animals. In order to monitor the animal welfare of the large grazers in Danish nature national parks, a systematic and validated welfare assessment system is needed. The system must be targeted at the animals that are used, and the welfare assessment should be of a multidimensional nature, so it includes indicators within nutrition, environment, health and behaviour.

On this basis, a knowledge synthesis has been carried out at the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at Aarhus University with the aim of identifying and describing existing projects with year-round grazing, which carry out systematic assessments of animal welfare. The assignment has been limited to relevant projects involving cattle, horses or bison, with particular focus on projects in the EU.

Nine EU projects have been included in the knowledge synthesis

In the process, 15 projects with year-round grazing, which are included in the European Rewilding Network were contacted. The projects were asked which systems and practices they use to assess and monitor animal welfare. In addition, direct contact was made to researchers affiliated with the development of welfare assessment systems and/or nature grazing projects in Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Poland. Of the 15 projects contacted, response was received from nine. One response covered several projects in the Netherlands, as the same organisation is responsible for 35 different projects (FREE Nature).

The projects develop their own systems

It appears from the synthesis that there are a number of large and small projects with year-round grazing with cattle, horses and European bison in the EU. The projects vary in terms of area, number of animals and animal species included. "It has not been possible to find multi-dimensional welfare assessment protocols that are used systematically in practice," says Professor Jan Tind Sørensen from the Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Aarhus University, who is head of the synthesis work. According to researcher Britt F. Henriksen, who is one of the researchers behind the knowledge synthesis, most projects have developed their own system, which typically includes daily/regular supervision of all animals (in case of few animals) or screening of the entire herd with special attention to abnormal conditions, such as animals that do not keep up with the herd (in case of many animals):

"Some projects use protocols that include more animal and/or resource-based indicators. However, several of the indicators are not validated, i.e. their significance for the welfare of the animal is unclear, and the correspondence between different observers has not been studied. Moreover, the frequency of welfare assessments varies between the projects and is typically used as a supplement to daily/regular supervision," explains Britt Henriksen.

Many projects include assessment of body condition and available feed

Condition was a recurring indicator in most systems: "Different scales are used to assess condition, and the scales have typically been developed and validated in a version that involves touching the animal. But especially during winter, where the animals' fur is heavy, we lack a validation of visual body condition assessment in relation to the assessment where the animals are touched. In addition, we lack knowledge about how often it is necessary to carry out a condition assessment in large grazers that graze throughout the year," says Britt Henriksen.

Fluctuations in body condition in year-round grazing horses, cattle and bison, as a result of season and reproduction stage, are, according to Britt F. Henriksen, an important parameter in relation to the assessment of the animals' nutritional status. Additionally, a reduction in body condition score may also reflect other health or stress-related problems. Subjective assessment of the food base is also included in some projects as a resource-based parameter for nutrition.

The use of resources, health and behavioural indicators varies between projects

Only a few projects include resource based welfare indicators from the surroundings, such as access to shade, shelter/cover and suitable ground, as well as the animals' use of habitats.  The projects often include animal-based indicators in the field of health in daily/regular supervision, as well as possibly in less frequent (monthly/annual) gatherings with veterinary supervision.
Animal behaviour is also assessed in some of the projects with daily/regular supervision. However, there is generally no systematic and validated approach. Therefore, currentassessments do not make it possible to document the welfare of free-living animals over time or to assess the effect of new initiatives.

Indicators of good welfare and positive experiences should be included

"The projects generally focus on indicators of reduced/poor animal welfare and generally do not include indicators of positive welfare. But welfare assessment protocols should also incorporate indicators for positive experiences and good welfare to be multi-dimensional," says Jan Tind Sørensen.

The researchers therefore recommend a systematic and transparent approach to the development of welfare protocols, where it will also be stated which indicators have not been included due to practical considerations or a lack of knowledge. "A systematic and quantifiable welfare assessment will enable documentation of the welfare of the animals over time and make it possible to assess the effect of new initiatives, which can also be used for international knowledge sharing between projects," concludes project manager Jan Tind Sørensen. 


Supplementary information

We strive to ensure that all of our articles comply with Universities Denmark’s principles for good research communication. Therefore, we have supplemented the article with the following information:




The questionnaire has been prepared on the basis of an agreement on co-financed research regarding “Knowledge synthesis about systems of relevance to the assessment of the animal welfare of large grazers in the coming national parks” between Aarhus University and The Danish Nature Agency.

Learn more


Link to knowledge synthesis (DCA Report no. 207, 22): Systems of relevance to the assessment of the animal welfare of large grazers in the coming natural national parks - knowledge synthesis




Professor Jan Tind Sørensen

Email: jantind.sorensen@anis.au.dk

Department of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, Aarhus Universitet