A new study led by Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) will look at whether the social competence of pigs can be improved through management and breeding.
The first of its kind study will use the idea of social competence – the decisions pigs make in different social situations such as whether to fight or flee or play – and whether it can be passed on from one generation to another to try to improve animal welfare.
The research, which is to be carried out in collaboration with the School of Biological Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast and the Pig Improvement Company, will focus on pigs and their complex social lives involving a range of positive and negative forms of social interaction.
It is known that negative forms of interaction reduce their welfare and their economic productivity, as well as increasing their environmental footprint, as animals use energy from food to fuel undesirable behaviours. However, not much is known about how the positive forms of interaction – such as social play and grooming – benefit their welfare.
The project will explore how decisions made in a wide range of social situations relevant to modern farming environments and how they combine to influence overall welfare, and how social competence is influenced by the social environment the animals experience early in life and by the complexity of the physical environment.
The researchers will also look at whether choosing socially competent animals to be the parents of the next generation will have an impact on their productivity as well as their welfare.
Lead researcher Simon Turner said: “As positive social behaviours are likely to be crucial to social competence, it will increase our understanding of how positive forms of social interaction benefit welfare.
Mr Turner said the aim of the study is partly animal welfare while simultaneously supporting farmers to produce animals that are profitable to their business and need less food to grow well, thereby benefiting the environmental footprint of farming.
“Pigs, and other species, show social behaviours that are difficult to improve when we look at these behaviours as isolated phenomena. We expect that, by taking a higher-level approach, we can favour animals that have the social skills to navigate a wide range of social situations.”
He added that the findings of the research, which is funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Pig Improvement Company, is hoped to be relevant across a wide range of species.