Animal welfare in the United Kingdom

Richard H.C. Penny, DVSc, PhD, DPM, FACVSc, FRCVS; and H. Jane Guise, BSc, PhD, CBiol, MIBiol

RHCP, Nether End, Warton Lane, Austrey, Nr Atherstone, Warks. CV9 3EJ, United Kingdom; JHG, UK.
Opinions are not peer refereed and represent the authors alone.

Within the past 50 years, animal welfare issues have become a major force affecting livestock agriculture in the United Kingdom (UK). In this editorial, We'll describe some of the ways that animal welfare concerns have altered the profile of swine production in the UK.

After World War II, the recovery of the pig industry in the UK was slow, and meat rationing did not end until July 1954. However, a more progressive industry replaced the old, and new breeding, husbandry, and management methods were introduced. The era of the breeding company, the improved leaner hybrid pig, and more intensive production had arrived. This so-called "factory farming," however, did not meet with universal approval. Public criticism over such things as stalls and tethers for sows, fully slatted floors, sweatboxes, tail docking, and darkness conditions prompted the government to set up a committee to investigate these systems.

Welfare codes

In 1967, the government established a body to advise on matters of animal welfare, and this became the Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC). The FAWC propounded the "Five Freedoms," on which most current welfare legislation in the UK is based:

  • freedom from hunger and thirst,
  • freedom from discomfort,
  • freedom from pain, injury, and disease,
  • freedom to express normal behavior, and
  • freedom from fear and distress.

All these freedoms had short qualifying clauses, but the freedoms were never prioritized.

Government advice to farmers on welfare is encompassed in the Welfare Codes provided for all farm species. Codes are not law, but in any court a breach of a code may be relied on by the prosecution as tending to establish guilt. Codes cover such matters as stocking rates and densities, the availability of light, frequency of feeding and watering, and husbandry procedures such as tooth clipping, castration, and tail docking.

Transport welfare issues

There are more detailed Orders for matters such as animal transport. Currently, pigs are moved under The Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order, July 1997. This Order is the third Transport Order passed within 10 years, with the most recent already under revision--a situation smacking of excessive bureaucracy and too much government interference.

The 1997 Order extends to 31 pages. The length and complexity of this Order have obviously made it extremely difficult for farmers, haulers, and veterinarians to interpret. Not until May 1999 was a 93-page guide to interpretation made available.

The Order mandates that no casualty "unfit" pigs may be transported if they are likely to be caused unnecessary suffering. An animal must not travel if it is likely to give birth in transport, or has given birth within the preceding 48 hours, and newborn animals cannot travel until their navels have healed completely. In the 1997 Order, "unfit"--which had previously been defined as a pig that is ill, injured, infirm, or fatigued (the interpretation was left to the courts)--was qualified by the insertion of the adjective "slightly." For some years prior to January 1993, a veterinarian had to examine all casualties and certify in writing that they were fit to travel. However, there were complaints about the cost, so self-certification by farmers was introduced. While the certificate that farmers now sign must state the cause of the unfitness, its main function is to confirm that the withdrawal period for any drug used as treatment has been honored.

While the occasional veterinarian was taken to court under the old system, many farmers and even haulers have been prosecuted and convicted since 1993. The courts face major difficulties in assessing the degree of lameness or the size of a lesion, and the introduction of the term "slightly unfit" has not helped. A conviction is on record for life, as this is a criminal offense.

The European Union (EU) requires that stocking density of 100-kg (220-lb) pigs during transport not exceed 235 kg per m2 (47 lb per sq. foot). A 20% increase may be required depending upon environmental conditions. Research has demonstrated that on the short journeys typical of current domestic transport within the UK (with a mean distance of 106 km [65 miles] or a mean travel time of 2 hours and 50 minutes), pigs tend to stand when their transport is in motion, and they lie down only when the vehicle stops.1,2 They support themselves against other pigs or the pen partitions. We concluded that although extremely high stocking densities are obviously inappropriate, a low stocking density might be as serious a welfare risk as a high one because pigs can be thrown around and injured by the motion of the vehicle. Unnecessarily low stocking densities during transport also increase costs.

Travel sickness has been raised as a potential welfare problem in pigs. We have made a preliminary study of the problem and concluded that while it occurs in a small proportion of transported pigs, it is not a major problem in well-designed vehicles on acceptable roads.3,4


Sow mortality in the UK has increased over the past 40 years, from 2.8% to >= 5%. This means that an additional 16,500 sows are dying in the UK each year. Some of this increase may be due to disease and/or unsuitably thin sows being maintained under poor environmental conditions due to the demand for leaner pork. However, in part it reflects the increasing tendency to euthanize "unfit sows" on the farm because they are deemed a welfare risk in transport.

Although there is no evidence that weaner/grower mortality has increased, there is some evidence that finisher mortality has risen. In 1981, recorded finisher mortality was 3.2%; by 1998, the rate had risen to 3.5%. In the 1980s, finisher mortality in 8 of the 10 years ranged from 2.7%-3.9%, with a mean for all of these years of 2.99%. The annual rates in the 1990s have been >3.0 for all 9 years (range 3.1%-4.0%) .

What are the reasons for this steady decline in finishers sold per sow in the UK compared to some of our EU competitors (Table 1)? Undoubtedly, competitors have made improvements in their husbandry and management, but there is no evidence that our producers have lost their ability to husband pigs well. Could disease be the cause? There is no evidence for this, either. A few loss-making pigs may be being kept for home consumption, but the most likely explanation is that producers are destroying "unfit" pigs on the farm rather than running the risk of prosecution.

Welfare advocates favor on-farm slaughter and various systems have been studied, including mobile slaughterhouses. However, meat hygiene and inspection regulations, along with the added cost of carcass disposal, make this an uneconomic alternative. Carcass disposal has become an increasingly difficult and costly problem for farmers. Prior to the bovine spongioform encephalopathy (BSE) epidemic, knackers offered a free carcass-collection service to farmers, but BSE control regulations made the feeding of the meat and bone meal they produced illegal, and many knackers have since gone out of business. Hunt kennels collect carcasses from farmers to feed to their hounds. However, a proposed ban on fox hunting would also put a stop to this practice.

Further areas of welfare concern

Transport is not the only area in which pig welfare legislation has been introduced. Sweat boxes were banned years ago, and the FAWC fourth freedom (to express normal behavior) has become a priority, making sow stalls and tethers illegal as of January 1, 1999. This freedom is also the one leading to the current criticism of farrowing crates. There was hope that the swine industries of other members of the EU would follow our lead, but apart from a Danish proposal to ban stalls after the first month of pregnancy for sows producing bacon pigs for the UK market, other countries have yet to change their systems.

In 1997-1998, bills were introduced into both house of our legislature providing that:

  • the present recommended space allowances for all pigs be doubled;
  • all pigs be provided with suitable bedding;
  • pigs not be weaned, except in exceptional circumstances, under 6 weeks of age; and
  • tail docking be banned.

The implications for the industry are obvious, but fortunately the bills were defeated, mainly by the intervention of two senior churchmen and a veterinarian, who were briefed by proactive veterinarians and animal scientists. However, matters are only "on hold"--a ban on docking, farrowing crates, and fully slatted floors are all impending.

Human health and food safety

Growth promoters

Some antibiotic growth promoters, which have undoubtedly helped to increase profitability and contributed to animal health and welfare, have been banned in the United Kingdom and EU since June 30, 1999. Additional controls seem inevitable. Producers will have to introduce new strategies for disease control that will undoubtedly increase their costs.

In Sweden, a ban on the use of all antibiotics/chemotherapeutics in feed, except to prevent and treat disease, was imposed in 1985. Sweden would like other EU countries to follow suit, but the effects of this ban on pig health and the cost of production in Sweden have been to increase disease, the use of antibiotics for treatment, and production costs.5 The main pressure for such a ban has come from the medical profession, who believe that growth promoters may contribute to antibiotic resistance in humans. The benefit to the swine producer in terms of improved growth rates is not a consideration.

Food safety has also become a highly charged, vote-catching political issue. The changes demanded by the welfare lobby do not always coincide with changes needed to meet food safety requirements. For instance, the use of bedding--extremely popular with the welfare lobby--leads to dirtier pigs at slaughter. This increases the risk of bacterial contamination, such as with Salmonella. Water sprays on the farm and in lairage, although they lead to cleaner pigs at slaughter, are perceived to predispose to chilling. There will be further conflict between animal welfare and meat hygiene concerns.

Government legislation regulating perceived animal welfare has had a major impact on pig production in the UK. The economic consequences have been serious and the attendant increases in costs to producers have not been reflected in higher prices received for their product. In fact, supermarket chains that have enacted strict requirements on their home producers have imported cheaper products from our EU competitors and other countries. This has resulted in much bitterness within our industry. The recent purchase of one of our largest supermarket chains--ASDA--by the American company Wal-Mart could exacerbate the price war. The government must be held at least partially responsible for the precarious state of the UK pig industry.


1. Guise HJ, et al. Observations of the behaviour of slaughter-weight pigs in transport. The Pig Journal. 1996; 38:19-29.

2. Riches HL, et al. A national survey of transport conditions for pigs. The Pig Journal. 1996;38:8-18.

3. Guise HJ, et al. Transport of pigs. Vet Rec. 1996; 138:139.

4. Riches HL, et al. Preliminary investigation of frequency of vomiting by pigs in transport. Vet Rec. 1996; 139:428.

5. Tronstad A. The Swedish ban on antibiotic growth promoters in animal feeds. The Pig Journal. 1997; 40:89-98.