PIG producers are facing fresh pressure to improve welfare, at the same time as struggling with costs.
The Farm Animal Welfare Council, adviser to the government, has pointed out that tail docking and clipping or grinding pigs’ teeth, to blunt them, are still routine, six years after an EU ruling that they should be practices of last resort.
The FAWC is being phased out and the “opinion”, or short report, on “mutilations” in the pig business was one of the last items on its agenda as a civil service body. It will be replaced by a committee of experts, to save money.
It reported that castration, to prevent “boar taint”, is now uncommon in the UK, and welcomed that progress. But it said 80 per cent of piglets still have their tails cut off or shortened, as a preventative against outbreaks of tail biting, and “a high proportion” have their teeth clipped or ground, to reduce damage from fighting and make suckling easier on the sow.
The operations must be approved by a vet but most vets agree with the farmers that the operations are necessary, to prevent worse welfare problems. They are normally performed on very young animals, without anaesthetic, and industry defenders say the pigs are quickly over the pain. But the FAWC report says there is no certainty about this and poor practice leads to complications in quite a lot of cases.
The FAWC acknowledges that the industry is trying to find alternatives to surgery by experimenting with “environmental enrichment” – jargon for straw bedding and toys – and other methods of behaviour control. But it suggests the government should be pushing for more research and more progress. Tail docking is forbidden in Sweden, it points out, although most of the UK’s big competitors follow similar practices and many still castrate without anaesthetic as a matter of routine.
Peter Stevenson, chief policy adviser of Compassion in World Farming, commented: “Vets should be advising farmers on how to improve the pigs’ conditions in order to prevent tail biting.
“We warmly welcome FAWC’s recommendation that there should be improved enforcement of the legislation and that a Tail Docking Action Group should be set up. Also welcome is FAWC’s emphasis on the welfare benefits of providing enrichment materials, in particular straw. We call on pig farmers to end routine teeth clipping and grinding as a matter of urgency.”
Both the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme and the RSPCA’s Freedom Food standards allow tail and teeth cutting where necessary. But Freedom Food says it is stricter about necessity.
The Soil Association prohibits both practices in its standards for organic pigs.
Tim Wilson of Levisham, near Pickering, who runs the free-range farm behind the Ginger Pig business, said: “We have never needed to do either. That is partly because we use old breeds, which are less prone to stress. But it is mainly because tail biting is what pigs do when they are bored. It is down to space and welfare.”
BPEX said: “Outbreaks of tail biting can occur on indoor and outdoor pig farms, including straw-based production systems. BPEX endorses interventions to reduce the risk and minimise the impact, through docking the tail, provided a veterinarian has formally advised that this is necessary.”