Compassion In World Farming, Ireland

FarmFacts: IRISH PIGS


What does Compassion in World Farming - Ireland want?

Free-range pigs

We want all Irish pigs kept in systems that allow them to move about freely and carry out their natural instinctive behaviours.

We believe that, ideally, pigs should have access to the outdoors and be kept free-range with shelter and bedding provided. Where this is not possible, we want to see pigs kept indoors with plenty of room to move around, fresh air and natural light, and suitable material provided for them to lie on and to root about in, and with the company of other pigs except when farrowing.


How many pigs are there in Ireland?

According to Central Statistics Office (CSO) figures, there were about 158,000 breeding sows in the Republic of Ireland in 2010. These are the pigs that produce litters of piglets that are then fattened and slaughtered for the meat market.

CSO figures show there were about 1.3 million young pigs in the Republic of Ireland in 2010. These are the offspring of the breeding sows, which are fattened and slaughtered for meat.


How do pigs live naturally?

Pigs were first domesticated from wild pigs (boar) in Europe and Eastern Asia around ten thousand years ago. Many breeds have been developed from these wild ancestors, although the majority of commercial pigs today are from a few selected breeds and crossbreeds.

Pigs are considered by many to be equal in intelligence to dogs. They naturally live in social groups near woodland. They use their highly sensitive snouts to search out a wide variety of foods. The female pig (sow) builds a large nest where she will farrow (give birth) and protect her piglets. Under natural conditions the piglets would normally be weaned (no longer suckle but eat solid food) when they are 10 to 20 weeks old.

Contrary to popular belief, pigs are very clean animals and use a toilet area away from their living space. The misunderstanding about pigs being dirty arises because pigs wallow in mud in hot weather to protect their skin from the sun and to keep cool because they do not sweat like humans.


How are most pigs in the Republic of Ireland kept?

Young Piglets in a Fattening house

The pig industry in the Republic of Ireland is highly intensive, with the vast majority of pigs reared on factory farms. In these, pigs are kept inside large sheds with no access to outdoors, and conditions are often crowded and barren.

A small number of pigs are kept on free-range or organic farms. These pigs have access to outdoors and a shed or small house to go into for warmth or to keep dry. Compassion in World Farming - Ireland believes that well-run free-range or organic systems can provide a high welfare standard for pigs.

A small number of pigs may be in higher welfare indoor systems, where there is adequate space, natural light, material for bedding and effective enrichment material, such as straw.


How are breeding sows kept on intensive pig farms in the Republic of Ireland?

Sows in a stall

From 1st January 2013, keeping pregnant sows in narrow stalls after the first 4 weeks of pregnancy will be prohibited. This means that, after the first 4 weeks of pregnancy, a sow will have to be moved into group housing for the remainder of her pregnancy. Compassion in World Farming - Ireland welcomes this improvement in the law. However, we are concerned about the standards of group housing systems, some of which may be crowded and barren.

Sow stalls can still be used for the first 4 weeks of pregnancy (see photo, left). Sows kept in stalls are unable to turn around and cannot exercise. The floor they stand or lie on is usually concrete, with slats at the back for waste removal. The sows have to lie down in the same area that they use for the toilet.

In the past, sows were confined in narrow stalls for their entire pregnancy - nearly four months. Apart from when they were carrying their first litter, for which they were usually kept in group housing, sows spent all their pregnancies confined in stalls. Compassion in World Farming campaigned for many years for a ban on sow stalls, and welcomed the EU's decision to ban sow stalls after the first 4 weeks of pregnancy from 1st January 2013.

When sows productive life is over, usually after about 4 to 7 pregnancies, they are slaughtered.


What is sow group housing?

In group housing, a number of pregnant sows live together in a pen. They are kept indoors all the time, with no access to the outside. High standard group housing provides space for the pigs to move around and material such as straw for them to root in and sleep on. However, we are concerned that the conditions in group housing on intensive farms may be crowded and barren, with slatted floors.


What are farrowing crates?

A sow in a farrowing crate

Farrowing crates are very commonly used in Ireland and in other countries. The sow is moved to a farrowing crate just before she is due to give birth. She stays there until her piglets are taken away when they are about four weeks old. The farrowing crate is narrow and it is difficult for the sow to stand up or lie down; turning around is impossible.

The pig farming industry argues that the farrowing crate is used to stop the sow from accidentally lying down on her piglets and crushing them. However, Compassion in World Farming believes that farrowing crates cause sows unnecessary suffering and frustration. There are alternative indoor systems for farrowing which provide protection for the piglets whilst giving the sow more freedom to move around and allowing her to build a nest.


What happens to the piglets?

Young Piglets in a Fattening house

After being taken from their mothers when they are about 4 weeks old, the piglets are fattened for meat (e.g. pork, bacon, ham, sausages). They are slaughtered when they are about 5 months old.

Usually, young piglets are reared in small pens at first and then in larger groups, where they are often kept in crowded conditions on concrete slatted floors.

EU law requires that fattening pigs are provided with effective enrichment material (such as straw or mushroom compost) that allows pigs to properly carry out investigation and manipulation behaviours. Many farms in the Republic of Ireland, and in other EU countries, are failing to provide effective enrichment material for fattening pigs.


Why is it so important that pigs have effective enrichment material?

The majority of pigs in the Republic of Ireland are reared intensively on factory farms, where they live indoors in barren conditions. Nearly all fattening pigs (95% to 99%) are tail-docked, even though routine tail docking is prohibited by EU law. Few pig farms provide effective enrichment material; instead, the pigs are given 'toys' (such as chains), which scientific studies have shown to be ineffective on their own. Without effective enrichment material, such as straw, pigs are much more likely to resort to biting the tails of their penmates. EU law says that tail docking can only be carried out where injuries to other pigs' tails have occurred and where changes to the environment, stocking density or managament system have not been effective. However, we believe that Irish pigs are tail-docked despite the absence of effective enrichment materials.

Compassion in World Farming has produced a practical booklet on enrichment materials for pigs. Based on scientific studies, this indicates which enrichment materials are effective and, in our view, comply with EU law.


What are mutilations?

Farmers may cut off part of piglets' tails because the piglets may bite at each other's tails and cause injuries. This unnatural behaviour is more likely to happen when the pigs are kept in crowded, barren conditions, and in particular when effective enrichment material, such as straw, is not provided. Although EU law prohibits routine tail docking, 95% to 99% of pigs in the Republic of Ireland are tail docked (see, for example, a report by the European Food Safety Authority on pig tail biting, page 87; and a Irish pig abbatoire study, p. 49).

In some EU countries, but not the Republic of Ireland, male piglets are castrated. Not castrating piglets is better in welfare terms because castration is a painful and stressful process for piglets.


Outdoor pigs

Pigs kept outdoors in systems that comply with certain standards are called 'free-range pigs'. If they are also fed on a natural diet, and specific organic standards are kept, they are called 'organic pigs'. In outdoor systems, herds of sows are usually kept together with small huts provided for shelter. When the sows are ready to farrow, they are often moved to new ground where they will have a hut to themselves and their piglets.

In Ireland there are only a very small number of free-range and organic pig farms. Compassion in World Farming - Ireland believes that, where climate and soil type is suitable, outdoor pig production should be encouraged in Ireland.


High welfare standard indoor systems

Systems where pigs are kept indoors all the time without access to outdoors can have high animal welfare standards. For this, the pigs need to have room to move around freely, natural light, fresh air, and an environment that allows them to carry out their natural behaviours. In particular, there should be plenty of effective enrichment material (such as straw) for pigs to investigate and manipulate and root in. There should also be material for bedding. Pigs are naturally sociable animals and should be kept in stable groups (except at farrowing).


What improvements have there been?

Compassion in World Farming - Ireland has been campaigning for better conditions for pigs in Ireland since 1992.

EU law has brought about welcome improvements: tethering of pregnant sows is now illegal; the keeping of pregnant sows in narrow stalls after the first 4 weeks of pregnancy became illegal in 2013; routine tail-docking is now prohibited under EU law; and EU law requires that pigs must be provided with effective enrichment material (such as straw) that enables them to carry out proper investigation and manipulation activies.


What now?

Compassion in World Farming - Ireland will continue to do all it can to ensure that the legislation is fully complied with on all Irish pig farms, and to bring about necessary improvements in the EU law regarding the welfare of pigs.

We will also continue to encourage free-range and organic pig production in Ireland and, where this is not possible, for indoor pigs to be kept in well-run and well-designed group housing systems.

We urge consumers to choose free-range or organic pigmeat (pork, rashers, sausages etc.) and to ask their local supermarkets, shops and farmers' markets to stock this.


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