The national pig herd has lost-one tenth of all sows over the last six months, farmers’ associations have revealed, after breeders were forced into a massive cull caused by a shortage of labour in abattoirs.
The National Farmers’ Union president, Minette Batters, and the National Pig Association chairman, Rob Mutimer, have written a joint letter to the environment, food and rural affairs secretary, George Eustice, calling for an urgent summit to address labour and supply-chain concerns.
They say measures introduced to support the industry have so far delivered “minimal benefit” to pig producers.
The call comes as the cull of healthy pigs on farms continues, with an estimated 35,000 animals killed since September, according to the NPA, although unreported cases mean the actual number is likely to be higher.
Since the crisis hit last year, approximately 30,000 sows have been removed from the national herd, they said. About 40 independent farms have left the industry, the associations claimed.
The letter states: “The NPA and NFU are asking that you urgently arrange a summit of the entire pig supply chain so that we can agree a plan to get these pigs off farms and on to people’s plates.”
In October, after weeks of warnings of the impact of an ongoing shortage of workers at slaughterhouses, farmers were forced to start killing animals to make space and ensure the continued welfare of their livestock.
Producers warned at the time there was a backlog of as many as 120,000 pigs left stranded on farms long after they should have gone to slaughter. Before Christmas, the backlog had risen to 170,000. Farmers say it continued to increase rapidly over the festive period due to staff taking holidays and isolating with Covid.
The industry said the situation has deteriorated despite the government’s package of support measures announced in the autumn. These included permitting foreign butchers to enter the UK on temporary visas, longer working hours at processing plants and a scheme allowing producers to store pig carcasses for several months before processing.
The organisations are calling on Eustice to simplify the visa application process. The NPA said it is only aware of 105 butchers who have travelled to Britain or are due to arrive, representing just 13% of the 800 visas allocated by government.
The NPA warns that not enough pigs are being processed, with around a third of pigs ready for slaughter not being taken each week. This results in an increased backlog of animals on farms, while those which are left behind are becoming heavier and more difficult to manage.
Average weights of pig carcasses have continued to rise, reaching over 95kg, an increase of almost 10%, or 9kg, compared with two years ago.
Farmers are facing soaring costs for feed, leading to losses of about £25 per pig for almost a year. Some producers are removing breeding sows from their herds, while others are leaving the sector altogether.
“All of these factors are taking a huge toll on farmers’ mental health as the crisis worsens every week,” the letter to Eustice states, “especially for those having to endure the trauma of culling healthy animals when there seems to be no end in sight.”