Chapter 1 – Piggy
on a Plate
‘We use everything but the “oink”’ boast
producers when they talk about pigs. Every single thing
about pigs has been worked out to the last dot and comma,
like ticking off a checklist of things to do: ‘How
can I get them to: 1) produce as many piglets as possible;
2) use as little energy as possible; 3) eat as little
food as possible; 4) put on as much weight as possible;
5) cost me as little money as possible?’
Producers have asked and answered every question in
the world about raising pigs except one: ‘What
about the animals?’ Anyone who had asked that question
would never have come up with the ‘dry sow stall’.
There are roughly 800,000 breeding sows (female pigs)
in the UK and, as I write, over half of them are being
kept in metal-barred stalls so narrow that they bars
or concrete walls almost touch their sides. They can
take half a pace forward, half a pace back and can just
about lie down with difficulty. Some are tethered to
the floor with a big, broad collar around their necks
or in their middles just to make sure they don’t
leap out. Pigs that don’t move use up less energy,
so more of the food they eat turns into meat.
There’s no bedding in these stalls either, because
that costs money and would have to be changed regularly.
Instead, the pigs stand on concrete or wooden slats which
their drippings are supposed to fall through. Some does,
some doesn’t and when the sow lies down there is
usually something pretty nasty for her to lie in.
And don’t believe the old tale about pigs liking
muck and filth – they don’t. In the wild,
pigs roll in mud but believe it or not, that works in
much the same way as facial mud packs. They certainly
don’t like standing on slats because their feet
aren’t made for it and they often end up with really
bad leg and back pains.
I’ve walked through pig sheds and seen these conditions
for myself. It nearly blew my mind that so much cruelty
could happen under one roof. Animals which naturally
live together in family groups, which are bright and
intelligent and as inquisitive as dogs, are chained in
solitary confinement. They’re with hundreds of
other pigs but can barely see them and can’t do
anything but eat the same boring dry pellets in the container
in front of them – all day, every day.
The reason these sow stalls are called ‘dry’ has
nothing to do with the weather either. It just means
that for 161/2 weeks they’re there, the sows are
not producing milk. In fact they’re pregnant. When
it comes nearer the time for them to give birth, they’re
moved to things called farrowing crates.
These poor sows are treated just like breeding machines.
They’re forced to churn out five litters of piglets
every two years, with as many as 12 or 13 piglets in
a litter. Wild pigs breed only once a year and produce
nothing like this number of piglets. And unlike wild
pigs, the factory-farmed sows never get the chance to
be a real mother.
In the farrowing crate, a metal implement a bit like
a huge comb with big gaps between the teeth separates
the sow from her piglets. She lies on her side and the
bars stop her from nuzzling her young, from licking them
or doing any of the things she would like to do. The
piglets can get to their mother’s teats to suckle
but no other contact is possible.
The reason for this contraption? To stop the mother
from rolling on her young, say the producers. This can
sometimes happen in the first few days after birth when
the little piglets are too slow to get out of their mother’s
way. The reason is that farm pigs have been bred to be
unnaturally big and fat and do sometimes flop around.
But the few producers who allow their sows a more natural
life without the farrowing crate still manage okay. Producers
say that using this device shows how much they care for
their animals. It’s really about caring for their
bank balance because a lost piglet is lost profit.
After three or four weeks of suckling, the piglets are
taken away from their mothers and put into piggiboxes,
which are stacked one on top of another. In the wild
they would suckle for at least another two months. I
have watched piglets which have been allowed a more humane
life in the open air scamper around, chasing each other,
tumbling and playing and generally being full of mischief,
much like puppies. These factory-farmed piglets are crammed
together so they can’t even escape from each other,
let alone play. Out of frustration and boredom they often
start to bite each other’s tails, sometimes causing
So how do farmers stop it? Easy – they cut off
the piglets’ tails or take their teeth out. It’s
cheaper than giving them more space. Pigs can live for
20 years or more but these piglets don’t last longer
than five or six months, depending on whether they are
killed for pork or pork products such as pork pies and
sausages, ham or bacon. For a few weeks before they die
they are taken from the boxes and put into fattening
pens, still crammed together, still with no bedding and
still with absolutely nothing to do. In the USA, ‘Bacon
Bins’ were developed in the 1960s – here,
piglets are kept alone in bare cages so small they can
hardly move. This stops the piglets ‘wasting’ energy
on exercise, so they get fat quicker.
For the mother, life of a sort goes on. As soon as the
piglets are taken from her, she is strapped down and
a boar (the male pig) is allowed to make her pregnant
again. Left on her own she would be naturally choosy
about her mate, just like most animals, but here she
has no choice. Afterwards, it’s back to the dry
sow stall for another four months of total boredom while
the next litter grows inside her.
If you ever get the chance to see sow stalls, you’ll
notice that some of the pigs gnaw at the bars in front
of them. They do it in a particular way, repeating the
same movements over and over again. Animals in zoos sometimes
do something similar, such as pacing backwards and forwards
in a set way. It’s known to be a result of extreme
stress and has been likened in a report on the welfare
of pigs by the government-supported body, CRB Research,
to a nervous breakdown in humans.
For sows who aren’t imprisoned in sow stalls,
life isn’t much happier. They are usually crammed
together and still have to produce just as many piglets
in the farrowing crate. Only a tiny proportion of pigs
are allowed to live in the open air – that’s
what’s called free range.
Yet wild pigs once lived in Britain, in the woods that
covered over half the country, until they were hunted
to extinction in 1525. They were reintroduced in 1850,
but were wiped out again by 1905. These pigs foraged
in the wild for food like nuts, roots and worms, and
they lived with other pigs. They sheltered under the
cool of the trees in summer and built huge nests of sticks
and dried grass to keep them warm in winter.
A pregnant sow would also build a nest, often a metre
high, for her litter and she would travel miles to find
the materials to make it. Watch a pig in a farrowing
crate and you will often see her searching the tiny space
for . . . something. It’s the old habit of wanting
to build a nest. And what is she given? Not a stick,
not a strand of straw – nothing.
Luckily, the dry sow stall is illegal in Britain from
1998 and, although most pigs will still live in overcrowded
conditions, it is a step forward. But 40 percent of all
meat eaten in the world comes from pigs. They are consumed
more often that any other animal and factory farmed in
every corner of the globe. Also, a huge amount of ham
and bacon eaten in Britain comes from other countries,
such as Denmark, where even more pigs are being put into
sow stalls. The biggest step forward for all pigs is
for people to stop eating them! It’s the one thing
which will have an immediate effect. No more pigs will
be put through this torment just for you.
If young people realised what was involved in the factory
farming of pigs they would never touch meat again.’
James Cromwell, Farmer Hoggett in the film Babe