UK pig farms cull healthy animals amid labour shortage

Pig farmers have begun the UK’s first cull of healthy animals not prompted by disease, slaughtering about 600 animals after the government declined to intervene to help with an acute labour shortage preventing abattoirs from processing enough meat.

Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, said farms had been forced to begin ordering the on-site killing of pigs, including piglets, to avoid breaking regulations on space allotted per animal after at least 120,000 surplus pigs built up on farms because of the butcher shortage.

She said mass culling was likely to follow on a much larger scale as soon as logistics were in place. So far the animals have been shot and removed for rendering into fat and protein meal by knackers, who normally deal with sick and injured animals or those that die of natural causes.

“Stage one was finding as much temporary space [on farms] as you can. We’re now at stage two — we’ve run out of space,” Davies said. “As soon as we’ve got a culling solution for people in the abattoirs, people will have to use it.”

The start of culling, first reported by The Times newspaper, follows outrage among pig farmers after Prime Minister Boris Johnson repeatedly dismissed their concerns, arguing that the animals were destined to die in any case.

Asked about the crisis on Times Radio on Tuesday, Johnson replied: “I’m afraid they’re eaten very often in this country — I don’t know, do you have a bacon sandwich?”

Davies said the industry was in daily contact with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs but that the government had so far declined to implement suggested solutions such as enabling foreign workers in the UK for harvesting under the seasonal workers’ pilot scheme to stay longer and take on butchery roles.

Another suggestion from the industry would involve relaxing levels of English required for visas for butchers entering the country under the post-Brexit, points-based immigration system.

Ministers are urging the industry to find its own solution, Davies said, but the crisis comes amid broader labour shortages affecting sectors from haulage to professional services.

Davies said the industry was also in regular contact with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, a trade body, about potential large-scale culling solutions.

Mike Sheldon, chair of the AHDB’s pork board, said the body was “looking at how together we can support meat processors to ease the supply of labour”.

The pig industry’s “challenges, in particular a shortage of skilled workers, come on top of pressure on margins largely due to rising feed costs”, Sheldon added. “These issues . . . require industry-wide action to prevent the situation deteriorating into an animal welfare issue.”

Farmers largely lack the correct licences to kill animals on farms, while many have faced threats from staff to leave their jobs if told to take part in culling, Davies said.

The crisis had left farmers “losing money hand over fist”, she added. “It’s just how long the banks are willing to support their overdrafts and how deep their pockets are, that will determine who can hang on and who will have to leave [pig farming].”

The start of culling has evoked memories of the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, in which millions of animals were killed and burnt. Most were infected but some healthy stock were slaughtered to prevent the spread of the disease.

Farmers protested at the Conservative party conference on Monday, displaying placards such as “we farm to feed the nation, not the landfill”.

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