Most of the 15 million fattening pigs slaughtered each year in the UK are reared in intensive conditions densely stocked, barren pens with little chance to forage and explore.
The worst excesses are now prevented through legal minimum space allowances specified in European Union law.
Tail docking and tooth clipping, mutilations inflicted on young piglets, are no longer permitted routinely in the UK. Despite the law, however, there is evidence that tail docking is still carried out on the majority of piglets.
Sweat-Boxes, whereby fattening pigs are kept so overcrowded in insulated buildings that steam rises from their urine and sweat, are banned in the UK.
Over the past 30 years, progress has been made in Europe in reforming the very worst confinement systems such as cages and crates for hens, calves and pigs. Attention is now increasingly focusing on those farming methods that keep animals crammed at high stocking densities, and often in large numbers. Fattening pigs fall into this category. Although physically able to turn around and walk, they are often kept in densely stocked and barren conditions that can induce the inmates to show abnormal behaviours such as tail biting. Public pressure in Europe is now forcing framework legislation to be introduced to protect these animals from the very worst excesses of intensive farming. The laws may not be adequate. But at least they indicate official acceptance of some welfare problems, and provide a legal framework to be improved upon.
Most of the 15 million pigs fattened for slaughter each year in the UK are reared indoors under intensive conditions. These are generally characterised by densely stocked and barren pens with little opportunity for the inquisitive animals to indulge their behaviours to forage and explore. Floors are usually of solid concrete, or perforated/slatted construction, often without bedding material. Legislation exists laying down minimum stocking densities for pigs. These minimums, however, are not set sufficiently high to prevent overstocking.
Under The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000, tail docking of piglets shall not be carried out routinely, but only when there is evidence on the farm that injuries to animals have occurred or are likely to do so as a result of not carrying out this procedure. The exact legal wording states:
27. Neither tail docking nor tooth clipping shall be carried out routinely but only when there is evidence, on the farm, that injuries to sows teats or to other pigs ears or tails have occurred as a result of not carrying out these procedures.
Unfortunately, this wording is so loose as to allow a coach, horses and several million fattening pigs a year to be driven through it. Even though routine tail docking is not permitted, Britains Ministry of Agriculture concedes that the mutilation is currently carried out on an estimated 70-80% of piglets. This particular piece of animal welfare legislation needs strengthening. However, its presence at least shows official recognition of the suffering involved in tail docking, and provides an opportunity for tightening of the law.
Tail docking is carried out on young piglets in order to minimise the risk of tail biting. Docking involves cutting the piglets tails with pliers or a hot docking iron without the use of an anaesthetic. Many fattening pigs are kept under barren conditions that often cause boredom and frustration. This in turn can lead to problems with piglets biting each others tails. Scientific evidence shows that by keeping them in better conditions, the need for tail docking can be overcome.
Minimum welfare standards for pigs which apply to all European Member States are set out in EU Directive 91/630/EEC as amended in June 2001. Among other requirements, the Directive specifies minimum space allowances for weaners, rearing pigs and boar pigs. For England, these are incorporated within The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000. Whilst these minimum stocking densities are inadequate to protect the animals welfare, they do provide a legal framework that can be improved upon.
The relevant section of Schedule 6 is reproduced below:
Example Legislation: The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000; Schedule 6
WEANERS AND REARING PIGS
30. Pigs shall be placed in groups as soon as possible after weaning. They shall be kept in stable groups with as little mixing as possible.
31. The unobstructed floor area available to each weaner or rearing pig reared in a group shall be at least -
(a) 0.15 square metres for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is 10 kg or less;
(b) 0.20 square metres for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is more than 10 kg but less than or equal to 20 kg;
(c) 0.30 square metres for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is more than 20 kg but less than or equal to 30 kg;
(d) 0.40 square metres for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is more than 30 kg but less than or equal to 50 kg;
(e) 0.55 square metres for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is more than 50 kg but less than or equal to 85 kg;
(f) 0.65 square metres for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is more than 85 kg but less than or equal to 110 kg; and
(g) 1.00 square metre for each pig where the average weight of the pigs in the group is more than 110 kg.
One system of rearing slaughter pigs, known as the sweat-box system is now banned for fattening pigs. The late Ruth Harrison described this system in her seminal expose of factory farming, Animal Machines (1964). It involved keeping the animals at very high stocking density in insulated buildings with no separate dunging passage. With no mechanical ventilation, the pigs were supposedly kept free from disease by maintaining a humid atmosphere inside the shed. The intense heat caused steam to rise from the animals urine and sweat, taking with it all bacteria, which find their way out of the houses with the steam, or remain caught in stalactites hanging from the ceiling (Harrison, 1964). To get an idea of the stocking density employed, the advice in those days was to cover the floor with pigs.
Pig sweat-boxes are now banned in the UK. Schedule 6 of The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000 state:
Prohibition on the use of the sweat-box system
16. Pigs shall not be kept in an environment which involves maintaining high temperatures and high humidity (known as the sweat-box system).
Harrison, 1964. Animal Machines. Vincent Stuart Ltd: London.