Vets and farmers have made the “soul-destroying” move of carrying out abortion procedures on pigs because they have “run out of alternatives”.
It comes as many can no longer cope with the backlog of animals on farms.
A shortage of butchers means that meat processors have been taking around 25% fewer animals than contracted, leaving farmers facing impossible choices to avoid overcrowding and the consequent breach of welfare standards.
Sky News has seen exclusive survey data from the National Pig Association (NPA) that suggests 11% of farmers have already culled healthy pigs, with a further 10% saying they will need to do so within the next two weeks.
Officially only 16,000 such kills have been logged with the NPA, but this figure is based on self-reporting and is likely a gross underestimate, with the reality more likely thousands, possibly tens of thousands killed but not destined for the food chain a week.
Farmers, vets and the industry alike have said what’s currently happening is the worst culling of healthy animals in the history of UK pig farming, describing the situation as “sickening”, “unforgivable” and a situation caused by “human error”.
Farmers have been warning for many months that the labour shortage could result in culling if an intervention wasn’t taken, and many are taking extreme measures to find alternative accommodation for their pigs to avoid It.
“It’s now a common conversation that I’m having on a daily basis,” says Duncan Berkshire, a pig specialist vet with 17 years’ experience.
While he’s been consulting on culling animals for some time, he had to carry out abortion procedures for a client for the first time in the last few days.
“It’s soul-destroying, absolutely soul-destroying,” he said.
“I certainly didn’t come into the veterinary profession to discuss how we are going to kill perfectly healthy animals.
“Your initial gut reaction is ‘there must be an alternative’, and that’s what I think is really important for people to understand, that we’ve run out of alternatives now, there is no way we’d be doing this for any other reason other than the fact there is nothing else we can do.”
A combination of Brexit and the pandemic has left the meat processing industry chronically short of staff since the summer, with many migrant workers who used to fill these roles having gone home.
The British Meat Processors Association says it is still between 15-20% down on the staff it needs and is still operating against “all the unpredictability that COVID-19 is still bringing to day-to-day operations”.
In an attempt to ease the crisis, the government last month announced the introduction of 800 visas for foreign butchers, a slaughter incentive payment and extra funding for private freezer storage; the idea being that slaughtered pig carcasses could be preserved this way and butchered at a later date to help clear some of the backlog of animals on farms.
But neither have yet alleviated the crisis.
“There’s been a lot of issues in terms of trying to find the right people to come into the country who want to come into the country on a temporary basis,” explains Zoe Davies of the NPA.
“When they come in, you have to find them accommodation, you have to train them so it takes time.”
She added: “The other schemes, the private storage and the slaughter incentive bonus, have come at a time when processes are preparing for Christmas.
“They’re trying to get their Christmas orders out for the retail customers, they don’t want to be putting stuff in storage!
“So effectively those two measures will not help us before Christmas.”
A government spokesperson said: “We continue to work closely with the pig industry to help them respond to challenges caused by the pandemic, including the loss of exports to the Chinese market for certain pig processors and global disruption to CO2 supplies, all of which have contributed to a backlog of pigs.”
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