Pig production & welfare  

The most common breeds of pigs in the UK are the British Landrace and Large White. The majority of pigs reared for meat in the UK are crossbreeds. For example, a Landrace/Large White bred with a purebred Landrace or Large White results in an increased number of stronger faster-growing piglets. Duroc crosses are used extensively in outdoor pig breeding units producing offspring more capable of coping with UK weather conditions (3).

Sows are first mated when they are 6-8 months old. Around 80-90% of sows in the UK are serviced by artificial insemination (AI). Pregnancy lasts 4 months and a sow will give birth (farrow) to 5-25 piglets in a litter (averaging 10-12). Piglets are prematurely weaned after a minimum of 21 days (weaning would naturally occur at 12-14 weeks) and a week later the sow will be serviced again. The average number of pigs reared per sow was 24 in 2012, though many sows rear more than this. Sows produce 4-7 litters before they become exhausted and are slaughtered after 3-5 years for processed meat such as sausages, pork pies and other low-quality products. The natural lifespan of a pig is 10-15 years. Sows spend at least 2/3 of their lives in pregnancy.

There are 425,000 breeding sows in the UK. The majority of these are kept indoors. Sows used to be confined in sow stalls. These were barred stalls barely larger than the sow so she was unable to turn around. Sow stalls were banned in the EU on 1 January 2013 but are still commonly used outside the EU. They have concrete or slatted floors with no bedding. Intensive farming systems mean that pigs cannot display their natural tendencies and instead show unnatural behaviour such as tail biting, bar biting and head shaking.

Government legislation passed in October 1991 banned all stalls and tethers in the UK from January 1999.  The use of tethers in Europe was banned in 2005. The UK imported 800,000 tons of pork from countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark in 2004 (1). 
Alternatives to stalls include keeping the sows indoors in groups where they are kept in enclosures and may have bedding. Increasing numbers of sows are being kept outdoors in less intensive systems due to welfare legislation. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 state that a pig should be able to turn around, stand up, lie down and rest without difficulty. However, this does not apply when the sow is moved to a farrowing crate (1).    
Farrowing Crates

A week before intensively kept sows give birth they are moved into farrowing crates which are metal crates barely larger than the sow. The sow’s movement is severely restricted; she is unable to turn around or suckle her piglets. Any attempt at movement means the sow will unavoidably rub herself against the crate bars causing sores, abrasions and swellings. Sows will remain in these crates for 3-4 weeks until the piglets are weaned.

The strong instinct to build a nest (out of natural materials such as grass or straw) is denied. Close confinement can cause muscle weakness, lameness and inflammatory swellings of the joints. Farrowing crates are used as it is claimed that piglets would be crushed by the sow lying on them. However, when the sows are prevented from manoeuvring and lying down carefully, piglets are in danger of being crushed by the sow clumsily dropping down. Studies have found piglet mortality is no different between crated and un-crated systems. Alternatives to the standard farrowing crate have also been studied.

Ellipsoid farrowing crates allow the sow to turn around and gives them more freedom to move. Studies have shown that sows turn approximately 40 times a day and the increase in movement did not cause a higher pig crushing rate than the standard farrowing crate. Behavioural observations showed that the Ellipsoid farrowing crate permitted easier visual and tactile contact of sows with their young and also offered piglets better access to the sow’s teats (4).

The Werribee farrowing pen has a sow and piglet nest area and non-nest area. This provides twice the space of a standard farrowing crate (5). Attempts to reduce crate size lead to a sharp increase in piglet pre-weaning mortality. One study comparing the behaviour and performance of sows and piglets reared indoors and outdoors showed that piglets spent more time walking and playing when housed outdoors (6). Another study compared the behaviour of sows housed indoors (in farrowing crates) and outdoors in paddocks and showed that if the environment allows then pigs will spend hours making a nest to give birth to their young in (7).

In comparison, confined sows with no access to material to build a nest spent a large part of their last hours prior to giving birth pawing, rooting, nosing and biting parts of the crate. Depriving sows of space and material to perform natural nesting has shown negative effects on behaviour. This includes abnormal behaviour and psychological stress, reduced piglet survival and the savaging of piglets. After weaning, the majority of young pigs are reared in groups in small pens (batch pens) or metal cages. Those with slatted or perforated floors without bedding often cause injury to legs and feet. Under the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 the amount of unobstructed floor area available to each pig ranges from 0.15m2 (10kg pig) to 1m2 (pigs over 110kg) (1). Pens are typically overcrowded, poorly lit and without bedding.

Pigs can become bored and aggressive causing tail-biting and excessive fighting. Piglets therefore often have their teeth clipped and tails docked. Piglets are generally not castrated in the UK as they are slaughtered before sexual maturity. These procedures may be performed in the first few days after birth without a vet being present. The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007 state that if the piglet is older than one week then these procedures should be carried out under anaesthetic by a veterinary surgeon. Pig breeding is a major industry, with breeds being selected for rapid growth, high lean meat content and other economically desirable traits. The UK leads the world pig breeding industry with companies such as the Pig Improvement Company and the National Pig Development Company.  

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