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  1. The Business Interview
11 October 2021

“Ministers just went blindly ahead”: The woman trying to stop a mass cull of Britain’s pigs

Zoe Davies, chief executive of the National Pig Association, on how Brexit has pushed her industry to the brink of disaster.

By Will Dunn

Zoe Davies was running a pig farm in 2000 when some of her piglets were diagnosed with classical swine fever, a severe and highly contagious illness. Every animal on the farm – 3,500 pigs – had to be culled. Two decades later, the experience still moves her to tears.

“These were animals we’d been caring for every day,” she recalled. “I’ve still got the images in my head of loading up the girls on to the trailer. They thought they were going for a little jolly. I didn’t do the shooting, I couldn’t do it, but five minutes later you come in and they’re all on the floor. You never get over it.”

When Boris Johnson was asked about welfare culls on British pig farms last week, he responded by joking about bacon sandwiches; a dead pig is, to him, just a dead pig. But to Davies, who has a PhD in animal welfare, and the pig farmers she represents as chief executive of the National Pig Association, this is not the case.

“Yes, you know their ultimate aim is to feed somebody, but that’s a purpose. To feed, care, look after and nurture these animals, and then to have to throw them in the bin, is a complete waste.”

This is already happening on farms in the UK. The system that allows shoppers to walk into a supermarket and buy two packs of free range sausages for £5 relies on a constant flow of pigs of the right weight (usually around 100 kilograms). But a severe shortage of abattoir workers has led to pork producers reducing the number of pigs they buy from farmers. More than 120,000 pigs have now grown to 160kg and more, and the number stuck on farms is “going up every week”, said Davies. Around 650 pigs have already been shot – only licensed knackermen can kill animals on farms – and “that’s the start”, Davies warns.

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While the crisis in the pig industry has only just reached headlines, farmers have spent 12 weeks trying to find extra space to keep pigs, which cannot by law be stocked over a certain density. “I’ve got people with pigs in potato grading sheds, in cattle sheds, in temporary accommodation,” Davies warned. The culls are a sign that farmers have run out of options; culled animals cannot be sold for food.

The fundamental problem facing the pig industry, Davies explained, is that “nobody wants to work in abattoirs. That’s what it boils down to, and I don’t blame them.” Two of the UK’s largest abattoirs are near Hull, which last year had the highest unemployment rate in the country, but a recent campaign to bring in local workers – which included leafleting 1,500 homes – resulted in three enquiries and not a single job interview.

The cold, hard, boring work of butchering and packing pork has lately been done by immigrants. Davies told me that, until recently, 60 to 80 per cent of abattoir workers in the UK were from Eastern Europe. When travel restrictions were lifted over the summer, large numbers suddenly began leaving. “They’re not coming back,” she said. “It’s not just a case of saying OK, we’ll open that immigration route back up again… they don’t want to come back.”

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This is partly because Brexit has made the UK a less attractive place for European workers, but also because membership of the EU has transformed the countries they originally emigrated from. Since 2004, the GDP per capita of Poland and Romania, previously the two largest sources of EU immigration into the UK, has more than doubled, crime rates have roughly halved, and life expectancy has increased by more than five years. “They’ve made their money, they’ve gone home, they’ve bought houses,” Davies said. “They don’t need to come back.”

Until recently, the government did not seem to be getting the message. Davies said pig farmers have had almost no support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) – “until recently, they haven’t really done anything of any use to help us” – which claimed the labour issue wasn’t their area and suggested it was a matter for the Home Office. “It wasn’t until we sent some pictures of some horribly overstocked pigs as well as piglets that have been euthanised to government departments and said, ‘this is your evidence, now bloomin’ well do something’. We got a meeting with Defra, and the Cabinet Office turned up.”

It can take more than a year to train a butcher, so recruitment agents from the UK are currently scouring other areas, such as the Philippines and South America, for new immigrant workers. Even if this works, the pig industry is still constrained by Brexit. According to Davies, the cost of exporting to the EU is now “astronomical because of all the administration, the export health certificates, the veterinary sign-off on all these products. They’ve had none of that from EU coming into the UK, and they won’t for over two years after Brexit.”

Pork remains Britain’s most popular meat (the UK ate 1.7 million tonnes of pork in 2017), and 60 per cent of this is already imported. As Britain’s pig farmers struggle with a limited supply chain and the “ridiculously high” cost of feed, it seems likely that consumer demand will be satisfied by much cheaper pork from Europe – especially if the government, as it did last year, sets aside other priorities in a bid to “save Christmas”.

“All that they’ll do is lose business in this country and just be more reliant on imports from the EU, which I seriously cannot believe that is what they originally intended. I just don’t think they had a clue what impact it was going to have… They just blindly went ahead with all this without really thinking about what the impacts will be.”

UK pig farmers have faced disruption before, such as the introduction of higher welfare laws in 1991 – “we lost half our industry”, said Davies. However, despite the economic impact of these laws, they also gave British pork a unique selling point. Only New Zealand, which has a far smaller industry, can boast similar welfare standards. The outdoor lives and straw bedding that British pigs experience are “just unheard of” in the high-intensity pig farming carried out by the rest of the world, she said.

The UK has led the world in more compassionate farming of these intelligent animals, partly because many of Britain’s pig farms remain small, family-run operations. “A lot of these farms, the house is on the farm,” Davies explained. This is why she is determined that the farmers she represents are spared the experience of a mass cull, warning: “It will break a lot of people.”

[See also: Boris Johnson’s “f*** business” approach to the supply chain crisis is a risk for Brexit Britain]

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