A OneKind volunteer and Veterinary Medicine Student shares their industry experience with us to raise awareness of pig welfare for our autumn appeal.
Pig welfare: the problem
Our farmed pigs are being let down. Indoor, intensive systems are getting bigger, herd sizes are growing and more pigs are being fitted into smaller spaces. There is no distinguishing these animals save for a tattooed ear or a branded backside; their entire being reduced to an ID number, their whole worth reduced to pound signs. Last week, news broke of a 12-story pig farm under construction on a sacred mountainside in southern China. A perfectly square building, packed full of identically manufactured pigs.
Back in the UK, our pigs are also hidden away. Non-descript, low-roofed, grey, concrete-and-metal buildings are the hallmark of a pig farm. They may be on a site no more than half a dozen acres, but there are thousands of pigs growing at a monstrous speed inside. The public never get a look in. Stringent biosecurity measures wouldn’t allow it if anyone did want a peek.
In supermarkets, all a consumer can judge a pork product on is a splattering of ‘assurance’ stamps. Freedom foods, Soil association, Red Tractor… Spot one of these and for many it’s the thumbs up they are looking for that these pigs were raised to an appropriate standard. Vets are the trusted professionals who sign off on these assurance schemes.
A vet’s role
The general public describes vets as their most credible source of information regarding animal welfare. They trust our judgment, and so they should. We sign an oath on graduation promising to act with integrity, to acknowledge our personal and professional responsibilities to animals and to protect their welfare above all else. We are in effect the stewards for animal welfare and the public trusts us to champion best practice, always.
Vets and vet students are afforded the enormous privilege of visiting any number of farms and witnessing how things are done in a multitude of ways. This gives us a very select opportunity to observe the welfare of these animals and assess nationwide standards. With it, comes a really important responsibility to remark upon this welfare and demand for change as we deem appropriate – on an individual animal basis, herd-wide, or sector-wide.
There is the risk however of being pulled in a potentially conflicting direction. We serve the farmer and the farming industries, and have responsibilities towards them as productive businesses. Productive businesses are looking to turn profit and that invariably forces some compromises for animal welfare. The legislation governing each farming system dictates exactly where these compromises sit. Naturally, this won’t always line up with our personal ethics and be conducive to a good life for the individual animals in these situations.
It’s undoubtedly difficult to speak out against established practices, to admit that you’re not happy with how things are being done when everyone else is rolling with the status quo. But as custodians of animal welfare, we have a clear duty to always act in their interest. Due to our influence as veterinary professionals, a relatively small number of people can be a real catalyst for change. In recent weeks, a group of high-profile vets signed an open letter calling on the prime minister to bring an end to the badger cull. Let’s hope that forces a result.
Pigs & profit
BQP, one of the largest pig farming cooperatives in Britain, has recently been bought by an American company. It’s a long throw from the traditional small farms of the past. Now there’s enough profit in this industry to sustain foreign investors. It goes without saying that money should never override welfare, and vets have a role in supervising this on the farms they are invited onto.
Earlier this month, a fire broke out on a pig breeder farm in Northern Ireland due to a suspected electrical fault. Thousands of pigs perished. The resultant scenes were chilling. Endless rows of warped metal farrowing crates were all that was still standing in the burnt out building. The sows were restrained in these crates for weeks at a time during their lives, unable to move an inch as they suckled their young; unable to escape the flames when they came.
I spent a week on a local pig farm in the first year of my vet degree. The guilt I felt when I left, leaving behind those sows in their crates, stood in the very same spot where I met them on day 1, still niggles at me four years later.
We need to do better
Currently, a tiny 1% of the UK’s farmed pigs actually live outside. These are creatures who relish digging their snouts into the hard earth from dusk ‘til dawn. We have failed them as a society. Let’s do better. As we head back into coronavirus lockdown, let’s bear in mind the animals who live in a permanent lockdown.
I look forward to using my voice and influence as a vet to speak out and demand better welfare for our pigs for as long as they are continued to be farmed in these ‘factory’ environments. I’m part of the most brilliant profession and I’m really positive and excited about the changes we can make collectively, to improve the lives of farmed animals.
This excellent blog was written by one of our dedicated volunteers who wishes to remain anonymous. Our 2021 manifesto calls for an end to farmed animal cages – we want to see farrowing crates banned in Scotland once and for all. If you’d like to help us protect Scotland’s pigs, please donate to our appeal here.