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The 'real welfare' of UK pig farms

Launched in 2013 as a tool to illustrate standards of animal husbandry, the Real Welfare scheme reports its findings up to 2017.

29 March 2019, at 10:49am

The AHDB Pork Real Welfare scheme was launched in 2013. The scheme involves on-farm assessment of pig welfare using five objective and repeatable animal-based welfare outcomes:

  • Pigs that would benefit from removal to hospital pen.
  • Lame pigs.
  • Pigs with tail damage.
  • Pigs with body marks.
  • Environmental enrichment provision and use (optional).

Other variables, such as feeding practices, pen variables, and whether tails are docked or undocked are also recorded.

The scheme was developed in response to the pig industry’s need for conclusive, science-based evidence to demonstrate husbandry standards to retailers, animal welfare lobbyists, policy makers and consumers.

Assessments take place two to four times a year, with a sample of pigs from different pens assessed each visit. The size of the herd dictates the sample size:

  • For units of 300 finisher places or less, a minimum of 300 pigs should be sampled each year.
  • For units of 900 finisher places or more, a total of 900 pigs should be sampled per year.
  • For units of 300-900 finisher places, a representative proportion should be sampled per year.
  • Some measures require a scan assessment of all pigs in a sample pen, while other measures are recorded from only a sample of individual pigs.

The 2013-2017 report

In the first four years of the Real Welfare Scheme, over eight million pigs were individually assessed by specially trained vets to provide a credible, benchmarked level of welfare at both an industry and an individual farm level. The findings of the scheme were also reported in the journal, Animal.

Hospital pigs

"Any pig that would benefit from removal to hospital accommodation."

On average, less than 25 percent of farms had pigs that needed hospitalisation which equated to an average of six out of each 10,000 pigs that needed hospitalisation.

Lame pigs

“Any pig that, when standing, will not bear full weight on the affected limb and/or appears to be standing on its toes. When moving, there is a shortened stride with minimum or no weight-bearing on the affected limb and a swagger of the hindquarters. The pig may still be able to trot and gallop. This does not include pigs that are only showing stiffness or uneven gait.”

On average, 17 out of each 10,000 pigs were lame and non-hospitalised.

Tail damage

Severe tail damage: “Recorded as severe if at least a proportion of the tail has been removed (by biting), the tail is swollen or held oddly, scab covering whole tip. By definition, severe tail damage can never be obscured by dirt.”

Mild tail damage: Not reported in this update (for definition, please see Real Welfare Baseline Report: 2013–2016).

Over four million non-hospitalised pigs were assessed for severe tail damage. On average, 11 out of each 10,000 pigs had severe tail damage and over 75 percent of farms had pigs with no severe tail damage.

Around 71 percent of pigs had their tails docked and five percent of pigs were kept in pens with mixed tail lengths.

Body damage

Severe body marks: “Recorded as severe if a mark is larger than 5x5 cm diameter, if the mark extends into deeper layers of the skin or if marks over a large percentage (>25 percent) of the skin. If a pig has both mild and severe body marks, it is recorded as severe only.”

Mild body marks: Not reported in this update (for definition, please see Real Welfare Baseline Report: 2013–2016).

On average, 16 out of each 10,000 pigs had severe body marks and over 75 percent of farms had pigs with no severe body marks.

Environmental enrichment

“The type of environmental enrichment was reported as substrate (‘straw’ or ‘other substrate’) and/or object (‘chain’, ‘plastic’ or ‘other object’). The quantity of straw was further classified as restricted, low, medium or deep. Where no enrichment was seen on farm at the time of assessment, it was recorded as ‘none seen’.”

Around 68 percent of pigs had access to a substrate and 30 percent had access to objects on farms where enrichment was provided.

For around 1.2 percent of pigs, no enrichment was provided.

Conclusion

The Real Welfare scheme outcomes suggest that the monitoring of these welfare indicators is worthwhile and can help producers and vets monitor and respond to trends on farm. It is known that benchmarking of health and welfare measures can lead to greater awareness and motivation to improve.