There are around 1.6 million pigs in Ireland almost all reared intensively on factory farms, inside large sheds with no access to outdoors, conditions often crowded and barren. A very small number of pigs are kept on free range or organic farms. There are some higher welfare indoor systems, with adequate space, fresh air, natural light, material for bedding and effective enrichment material, such as straw. They are sent to slaughter at around 5 or 6 months old but free range pigs are generally nearer 9 or 10 months.
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. 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 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.
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.