It was early morning on Lundy and I braved the strong north-easterly wind, leaving the cottage under overcast sky. I checked the pig field for small migrants then passed the duck marsh before doubling back toward Millcombe Valley, a richly vegetated pass that runs to the sea.
I went through the gate and was nearly hit by a whoosh of wings as a grey-blue bolt flashed past. A darkened shape rose in the headwind and started hanging in the air on angular boomerang-like wings, tail clenched and head swivelling. It was a stunning male Peregrine. Rising in an instant, he closed wings tight and plunged like a bullet; this was the fabled Peregrine ‘stoop’ and boy, was he fast! He dived across the valley in the blink of an eye, pulling out within a whisker of the ground and rose triumphantly. Banking effortlessly, he rippled blue wings and was away across the fields, over the farm and out of sight.
This was Peregrine at play; for no other reason than he could. There wasn’t any hapless prey in sight; he seemed to dive in the wind for the sheer joy of it.
It brought to mind how animal welfare is not just about animals being free from ‘unnecessary’ pain and suffering, whatever ‘unnecessary’ means; it is also about a positive state of well-being. It is about animals having the ability to express themselves, to find joy and excitement. Yes, being free from illness, injury, fear or distress is all highly important. But so too is the scope to do what comes naturally; grazing on grass, scratching at the ground, or closing wings and hurtling at tremendous speed just for fun.
Many times, I have watched our dog, Duke, play to the point where you can see the sheer excitement in his eyes; I’ve been thrilled at how Lundy’s Ravens tumble and somersault on the wind; I’ve watched as our hens rush headlong for their favourite treats.
On the flipside, I couldn’t help thinking how thousands of cows on mega-dairies live joyless lives; tired, milk-weary bodies listlessly indoors on concrete and sand; or pigs in boring pens; or hens in so-called ‘enriched’ cages, where food is dropped onto plastic and they’re supposed to dustbathe in it.
Animal welfare is much more than just a neutral state without suffering. Perhaps, more importantly, it is about experiencing the joy of being alive. When I hear of Lundy’s goats hopping the fence and browsing on forbidden ‘fruits’; when I see the island’s ponies frolicking; when I watched that Peregrine stoop, I could sense the essential element of good animal welfare – well-being; the sense that it’s good to be alive.