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EU SABRE Project Work “Animal Well-Being”

Welfare friendly husbandry through genetics

Project Objective

This project formed part of a large EU FP6 funded collaboration “SABRE”- Sustainable Animal Breeding, being part of the ‘Animal Well-Being’ work package. The project was aimed at identifying the genes responsible for variation in stress responses, including their relationship with animal welfare, product quality and safety. A clear link was found between individual aggressive tendencies and negative consequences of mixing pigs before slaughter.

Pigs identified at a young age as being of above average aggressiveness were found to still show high aggression when mixed into new groups four months later for transport to slaughter. This means that pig aggressiveness is a stable temperament trait. At slaughter, these more aggressive pigs had more scratches on the carcass after slaughter (affecting its value), higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduced meat acidity 24 hours after slaughter (increased meat pH), when compared to less aggressive or unmixed pigs.

Pig aggressive behaviour and stress responses are highly variable among individuals and influenced by genetic factors. Numerous gene polymorphisms have been detected as influencing stress reactivity. The established results open the way to marker-assisted selection to reduce aggression and stress and improve robustness of animals, contributing to animal well-being as well as improved product quality.

The EU

  • Number of pigs alive in Europe at any one time 153 million
  • Production of pork 21.8 million tonnes
  • 244 million pigs slaughtered in 2009
  • Average pork consumption 42kg per head

Why well-being?

Animal welfare plays a critical role in the sustainability of animal breeding. This is first of all for ethical reasons related to the consideration for living, sentient animals. In addition, bad welfare and accompanying stress responses have negative consequences on numerous aspects of animal production, such as growth rate, milk or egg production, resistance to diseases, product quality and product safety.

Selection for highly productive animals with high feed efficiency, fast growth rate and lean carcasses may have reduced their ability to adapt to environmental challenges. This ability is known as robustness and includes traits such as newborn survival, resistance to diseases and functional longevity. In the context of sustainable breeding, selection should balance genetic increase in production potential with genetic improvement in traits related to robustness.

The overall objective of this project is to find genes that reduce stress in farm animals and reinforce their competence for adaptation. Besides genetic selection also the environment has to be improved to better fit the needs of the animals. Avoiding or minimising mixing of pigs from different groups at all stages of production would reduce stress and improve welfare. Pre-slaughter, this could be done by ensuring that farm groups remain intact on the transport vehicle and again at lairage on arrival at the slaughter plant. This requires co-ordination between producers, hauliers and abattoirs.

Research Funders

  • This research project was funded by the Scottish Government, co-financed by the European Commission, within the 6th Framework Programme, contract No. FOOD-CT-2006-016250.
  • INRA, France
  • PIC UK and PIC Germany (owned by Genus plc, UK)
  • Research Institute for the Biology of Farm Animals (FBN) Dummerstorf, Germany

Further Information

See the "Animal Well-Being" section on the EU SABRE project website.

Dr Rick D'Eath

Reader in Animal Behaviour & Welfare

Address: Animal & Veterinary Sciences, SRUC, Roslin Institute Building, Easter Bush, Midlothian EH25 9RG

Telephone: 0131 651 9356

Fax: 0131 535 3121


Dr Simon Turner

Senior Researcher

Address: Animal & Veterinary Sciences, SRUC, Roslin Institute Building, Easter Bush, Midlothian EH25 9RG

Telephone: 0131 651 9359

Fax: 0131 535 3121


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