Tail biting comes under sharper focus

Moves to better enforce existing welfare directives for pigs will have implications for Irish rearers. While an EU directive dating from 2008 has sought to eliminate the practice of docking of pig tails “routinely”, authorities within all Member States have until now been laisse faire in its enforcement. As such, 95-99% of pigs across the EU reportedly have docked tails.

While cutting the tails of the pigs reduces the opportunity for biting episodes, it does not address the underlying causes and stresses prompting the behaviour.

Keelin O’Driscoll, a Teagasc animal welfare research officer, notes the directive had seemingly aimed to permit docking as a last resort. It was to be applied if attempts to adjust management routines, or infrastructure, or provide ‘enrichment’ had not helped.

However, the EU has been increasingly focussed on the topic in recent years. For example the EU Commission has provided guidance on the best type of ‘enrichment’ and, under European Commission DG Sante, an information gathering programme has been initiated to survey how pig welfare legislation was applied across member states.

“If there are going to be strong moves made to get member states to comply, we need to be able to help our producers here and guide them on how to transition towards rearing pigs with long tails,” explained Dr O’Driscoll.

The exemplar in this field is Finland which successfully enforces an outright ban on the practice.

However, Dr O’Driscoll notes there are significant differences between the sector in Finland, which mainly serves the domestic market, and to Ireland which is much more intensive and has a greater export focus.

The Finnish have much smaller farms with lower stocking density, greater space, better enrichment, and the system is disease free.

“The Finnish systems aim to keep the pigs as stress-free as possible,” she observes.

As such, Dr O’Driscoll cautions that if Ireland were to instigate an overnight ban on docking tails it would prompt “a welfare crisis” for pigs.

“The pigs would be eating each other alive,” she predicts. “There would have to be measures put in place before you do that.”

She also notes it would take a while for farmers to gain the experience of their Finnish counterparts predicting potential triggering factors.

“Because they never really had a culture of docking, their stock people and producers are used to picking out where the problems were. That’s the type of experience that only comes with time.”

Dr O’Driscoll envisages the stricter enforcement will have implications for Irish farmers.

“It’s going to be very difficult to get to a point where, as a country, we are compliant. And this is acknowledged by the Commission,” she says.

Brussels is encouraging a step by step approach to reducing the need to dock. The first step was taken in Ireland in late 2019. Teagasc, Animal Health Ireland and the Department of Agriculture developed a basic risk assessment protocol which can be carried out by private veterinary practitioners on farms free of charge.

“We trained up all of the pig vets in the country and they can go out now and do that for any producer who asks to have it done. In that very simple way, it should highlight the major issues that might be present on the farm: stocking density is too tight or if the lighting isn’t correct, and they will observe the animals themselves.”

Once the assessment is complete the vet provides feedback on possible adjustments.

“They can try to rear maybe one or two litters of pigs without docking once they’ve made these adjustments. If they still get biting and they have to dock again, they know there’s another layer of adjustments that probably have to be made. They can get the risk assessment done again, so it will be a slow process.”

Teagasc also have a PhD student currently working on a more refined version. They are re-purposing an assessment created in Germany for Irish pig farms. The “far more detailed questionnaire” covers issues such as feeding, flooring, vaccination and health status of the pigs.

“It would give a more targeted idea as to where the risks are on the farm,” says Dr O’Driscoll.

Teagasc will also consult with experts from across the sector to further refine the risk assessment questionnaire.

At last month’s animal Welfare at Farm and Group Level (WAFL) conference, one of the workshops heard developments of a project run by Teagasc in collaboration with academic researchers in Belgium and Denmark to develop a precision livestock tool.

The Belgian team are installing cameras above pens to record pig behaviour to try to develop computer models to predict biting outbreaks.

“If there is a system like this in a farm it could give an alarm to the producer that something’s wrong, and they could try to intervene before it gets to a stage where pigs might be badly bitten.”

They intend to rerun the workshop before Christmas to get feedback from industry stakeholders in Ireland on the main challenges in transitioning towards a system without tail docking.

The Celt suggests that farmers’ number one fear is being forced to reduce stocking levels.

“That will involve either constructing new buildings or cutting pigs from the farm, and both are expensive options.”

While she agrees that improving pig welfare is a good aim, she believes producers are “worried about what’s going to happen”.

“It’s quite daunting. If you’ve been using a particular system for 20-30 years and it’s working well for you and you’re making a living, then it can be quite challenging if someone says you’re doing it wrong and you need to change. It’s going to cost you way more money, but there may not be any better return for you in the end.”

On that final point, she believes it would be unfair if the farmers can’t secure a better return, particularly for the early adopters. Teagasc are about to commence a project to survey consumers in Ireland and Britain, and interview factories and market buyers on how much they will be willing to pay for “higher welfare pork”.

Looking at supermarket shelves Dr O’Driscoll points to an anomaly for pork.

“In every section, there’s choice for the consumer. With the beef you’ve got Hereford steaks, Angus steaks, 28 days dry aged, with the eggs, you’ve got the free range eggs, and corn fed chickens, for milk there’s a whole range of options. But with pork, it is just pork, there’s no choice. If somebody wants to buy higher welfare pork, they’re not able to buy it because it’s not in the shop.”