There are around 1.7 million pigs in Ireland almost all reared intensively on factory farms, inside large sheds with no access to outdoors, conditions often dark, crowded and barren. A very small number of pigs are kept on free range or organic farms. There can be higher welfare indoor systems, with adequate space, fresh air, natural light, material for bedding and effective enrichment material, such as straw, but these are rare in Ireland, partly due to the high cost and short supply of straw and partly due to poor advice and lack of enforcement of regulations by governmental bodies. They are sent to slaughter at around 5 or 6 months old but free range pigs are generally nearer 9 or 10 months. In 2020 over 3.5 million pigs were slaughtered.
There are around 145,000 sows in Ireland, almost all in intensive farms where they spend half their lives inside a cage too narrow to turn around in. A sow will normally have two litters a year and the average litter size is 12- 14 piglets. When a sows productive life is over, usually after about 4 to 7 pregnancies, they are sent to slaughter.
Key Welfare Issues
Sow stalls: used up to 4 weeks into pregnancy. Sows are unable to turn around and have to stand or lie on concrete flooring. Sow stalls are used because sows can become aggressive during the first weeks of pregnancy and fighting can cause injury and abortion.
Farrowing crates: used for birthing. The sow stays there until her piglets are about four weeks old when they are separated from their mother whilst still suckling. The crate is narrow and it is difficult for the sow to stand up or lie down; she cannot turn around and tend to her piglets. The purpose of farrowing crates is to prevent crushing, however piglet mortality rates can still be quite high.
The piglets are then fattened for meat in small, often crowded pens, commonly on concrete slatted flooring. They are slaughtered when they are about 5 months old.
Premature Weaning: piglets are removed from the sow at 4 weeks old. However, they can be weaned at 21 days if moved to a thoroughly cleaned and disinfected all-in all-out weaner house. They would naturally wean at around 12 weeks and this early removal can cause behavioural issues such as aggression as they are not able to learn positive socialisation skills and interactions from their mother and siblings. The piglets can have a suppressed immune system and also be low weight when weaned which can lead to premature death. Stereotypical behaviours in early weaned pigs include sham chewing, tail biting, concrete chewing, ear chewing and depression.
Tail Docking: EU law requires that fattening pigs are provided with effective enrichment material that allows them to root and chew. Many farmers are failing to provide this so the pigs resort to tail biting to alleviate boredom and frustration, resulting in many farmers carrying out routine tail docking. Routine tail-docking is prohibited by EU law, but only 5% of Irish piglets have full tails. Free range farms do not encounter issues with tail biting.
Respiratory Illnesses: respiratory disease is one of the most important factors impacting pig production worldwide and Ireland is no exception. Manure levels in slurry tanks under the flooring must be maintained at least 10cm below slat level so the pigs are continuously breathing in ammonia fumes. 98% of pigs tested during a recent research project had evidence of lung leisons.
Selective Breeding: sows have been selectively bred to produce more piglets. Just recently in Ireland a sow gave birth to 20 piglets. They only have 14 – 16 teats. This takes a tremendous toll on their bodies. Selective breeding also means faster growing pigs so they can be slaughtered at an earlier age to minimise cost, around 5 months old. A free range sow will produce 8 – 10 piglets that are slaughtered at 9 – 10 months old.
Organic and free range
Free range systems allow the pigs to live outside with small huts for shelter and the pigs are able to carry out their natural behaviours.
Organic farms must have access to the outdoors and their piglets stay with their mothers for longer. 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.
Pigs are intelligent animals, deemed to be similar to dogs. They are curious and need stimulation which they do not get in factory farms. They are also sociable and will often sleep together in a big pile, like these guys at Inagh Free Range Farm.
There are a small number of free range and organic pig farms in Ireland but the produce is rarely available in supermarkets so some of them are listed below. They supply local shops and farmers markets or you can buy directly from the farm. Please note EFI has not visited these farms and this is not an endorsement, this is for information only. Have a look on line for others that may be local to you.
Burren Free Range Pork – http://burrenfreerangepork.com/our-story/
McCarthys of Kanturk – https://www.mccarthysofkanturk.ie/about/free-range-pork/
Crowe’s Farm – https://crowefarm.ie/pages/our-story
Salters Free Range Farm – http://saltersfarm.ie/
Inagh Free Range Farm – https://www.facebook.com/inaghfreerangepigs
Caherbeg Free Range Pork Ltd – https://www.facebook.com/Caherbeg-Free-Range-Pork-Ltd-250142158334295/
Regan Organic Farm – https://www.reganorganicfarm.ie/
Ruaircs Farm – http://ruaircsfarm.ie/