We are all familiar with the harrowing social media posts showing hens in cages, battered-looking, haggard and thin, asking for kind people to give them a new home. How many of us with a small back garden thought it would be a nice thing to do, useful even if they recovered enough to lay some eggs, to rescue them from those awful battery cage conditions? Give them some freedom, look after them at the end of their (productive) life cycle, give them a chance to experience life as a proper chicken should, pecking at dirt and corn with mates and generally enjoying the sun on their back. This all sounds idyllic. So what about other farm animal “rescues”?

Not all animals are as easy to rescue as others. 

Truth be told, as a vet I have come across many keepers that did no research prior to acquiring an animal. (Of any species!). As humans, sometimes we are swept away by our best intentions. When it comes to livestock that appear to be in bad living conditions and in need to be “saved”, people might jump in at the deep end; without thinking too much of the consequences and implications.

To keep livestock as pets or smallholders, chickens are perhaps the easiest to begin with. Although a bit of prior husbandry knowledge is necessary, most chickens get by without too much trouble. Being the inquisitive birds that they are, most owners notice fairly quickly if something is amiss.

What about the opportunity of rescuing other species of livestock? 

Well, this isn’t as straightforward as it may seem at first glance.

Cattle, sheep, pigs, normally require specific input such as husbandry expertise, correct shelter and more land to live on than chickens or dogs. There is a reason why farms need large fields to keep livestock in. Studies have determined the appropriate acreage needed to sustain a group of grazing animals, depending on their species. We would be kidding ourselves if we thought that a cow would be happy in our quarter-acre back garden. Regardless of how well appointed the barn might be. A certain amount of mud is inevitable in winter. This is why farmers will rotate fields to make sure the ground doesn’t get too poached. Having seen groups of cattle and sheep standing in shoulder deep mud because of poor drainage, lack of land and poor husbandry, I can’t help but feel that not all their freedoms were a priority.

There are also infectious diseases to be aware of

Most farms will have had a talk about biosecurity with their own vet. Introducing animals in need of rescuing (therefore likely unwell) from unknown sources into an already existing group is likely to cause spread of disease. In terms of legislation, there are further things to consider. Keeping livestock requires acquiring a holding number; registering them with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) for the purposes of compulsory tracing and disease testing; the need for correct identification (ear tags usually), movement books and medicine books. The list is pretty long; not respecting these rules would be breaking the law. Therefore people should feel informed on what to do before acquiring livestock.

Thankfully there are many organisations that you can call real rescues

In these, animals are treated kindly and according to their species-specific needs. They are under expert supervision with vet input. When the necessary end-of-life decisions need to be approached, there is prompt action to make sure high welfare is maintained at all times.

Beware though

Some livestock rescue organisations (not necessarily in the UK) pride themselves in rescuing cows or other large animals from “death row” – the abattoir. This can sometimes result in some really poor animal welfare. When animals that were deemed unfit are taken on by someone else, but not always managed appropriately to recover. I am thinking of elderly sheep with no teeth – therefore unable to feed as sheep are meant to do; they stay too skinny and are likely bullied by others. Giving them feed alternatives such as chaff and biscuits shouldn’t replace their need for one of the main nutritional needs for forage: the freedom to feed and behave as it is appropriate for a species is one of the mainstays of animal welfare. 

I am also thinking of rescues that have too many entire bulls or rams; and let them run with females at all times. If that sounds like a “natural” way of life from the outside, in reality the number of fights that would break out risks making the welfare of these entire males pretty poor. Severe injuries and even death happen when bulls, rams and boars fight over the female harem. Unless they are managed in a completely re-wilded situation, we would be forcing animals that normally spread out over larger areas (to avoid such fights), to live in too close quarters.

Ultimately, if you are thinking of rescuing any animal, the first thing to ask yourself is this: 

Can I truly improve their welfare by taking them on? Do I know a sufficient amount about keeping this kind of animal to make sure their needs are met? Will I be able to make sure they live a life truly worth living, appropriate for their species, until the time when they are too old or unwell to continue living? If the answer to these questions is “no” or even “maybe”, we should reconsider our proposition of actively rescuing said animals. Perhaps instead think of making a donation to reputable charities. Because living a miserable existence in the name of being rescued from death is a fate worse than death itself.


these opinions are my own only, and this article is not meant to be disparaging criticism on animal rescues. There are many which do an outstanding job. Sadly also some farmers whose perception of animal welfare is not in line with current regulations. However, if you are thinking of rescuing livestock and you are an inexperienced keeper for that species, make sure you contact your local farm vets to discuss their needs and implications of doing so, before acting.

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