Pig producers have struggled more than most over the past year, with the increase in feed values and poor ex-farm prices hitting hard on profit margins, however, the tide is turning as African Swine Fever (ASF) causes devastation in China – home of the world's largest national herd.

In February, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture announced an 18% decline in pig numbers as a result of this notifiable disease compared to the previous year. Add to that further culling as result of the disease and the huge increase in the number of pig producers who continuing to sell up, and reports suggest a 200m head pig shortage since last year.

And with no vaccine or cure for this viral disease of pigs and government recommendation that infected units take a year our of production before restocking, demand for pigmeat in China looks set to soar with both the EU and US the beneficiaries.

"The implications of African Swine Fever are colossal," said Andy McGowan, chief executive of Scottish Pig Producers.

"The Chinese breeding herd has been cut by 21% compared to this time last year and they're still not on top of it. North Korea is also believed to be riddled with it and it has been found throughout much of eastern Europe and as far west at Belgium.

"On the plus side, while this is having a horrendous impact on producers, with the Chinese being one of the biggest consumers of pigmeat, there is huge potential to increase exports, with shipments already up on the year."

He added that figures from Eurostat pointed to pigmeat shipments from the EU to China had increased by 16% in January, February, and exports look set to rise further as the Chinese breeding herd falls further.

Last year, the UK exported 27,552tonnes of pigmeat, of which 4000plus tonnes were destined for China. In the coming year, Mr McGowan predicts exports to more than double.

"The last time we saw a significant rise in pig values was in 2016, when prices rose from a low of 112p to 165p per deadweight kg, on the back of a reduction in the Chinese breeding herd. This was due to a change in government policy which saw pig numbers fall by 8m head. With numbers already down by 200m head and still falling due to ASF, prices could rise further in the coming months."

Latest figures from AHDB Pork, show prices are slowly but surely heading north too, with the EU-spec SPP for the week ended April 20, hitting 138.67p/kg, +0.36p on the previous week and up 1.24p since the start of March.

However, with a steep price in Chinese pig meat values due to the ASF epidemic, this has meant that global pig meat prices are continuing to rise, with this trend filtering through to EU market and finally the UK.

Mr McGowan added: "Pig prices always come down slower and rise slower in the UK compared to the EU, but they are slowly but surely picking up. There was some genuine stockpiling at the end of March due to Brexit, which suppressed trade in the first couple of weeks in April, but I would expect significant price rises in the weeks to come, as we now have a genuine alternative market compared to relying on the home trade."

The UK trade is also set to benefit from the fact that the real European pig producers, Germany and The Netherlands, have already started selling their surplus pigmeat into China, instead of topping up our oversupplied UK market, Mr McGowan said.

Such is expected shortage of pigmeat, that Mr McGowan also expects to see UK beef and poultry values take a lift as Chinese consumers look to substitute their preferred meat of choice.

"There will be a huge gap in pigmeat supplies before the Chinese are able to get on top of this. Chinese producers have no confidence in the sector and even those who don't have the disease are looking to sell up. Government recommendation is not to restock a holding for at least a year, so it will be a long, long time before supplies get back to normal"

Add to that the fact that ASF is also causing huge problems in Vietnam, Cambodia, Russia and Eastern Europe, and prices look set to remain buoyant for a good number of years too.

However, with the virus so easily spread – through contaminated pigmeat and wild boar – producers were also warned a similar situation and one on a par with the foot-and-mouth epidemic of 2001, could occur in the UK.

Angela Christison, sector strategy director of the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, said the disease is spreading across Europe and had already devastated China’s breeding herd

“The most likely way the disease could reach the UK is in pork products made from infected pigs. African Swine Fever does not affect humans or other animals, but infected pigs usually die or are euthanised,” she said.

Prevention is paramount, she said with large-scale farmers and smallholders alike working hard to ensure the crisis never hits the UK.

“Commonly, outbreaks have been attributed to feeding pigs infected food. For this good reason, in the UK it is illegal to feed any kitchen scraps to pigs.

“Wild boar can also gain access to left-over food through the innocent discarding of imported processed pork meat/salami etc.in picnic areas, lay-bys and lorry parks. It is vital that left-over food is discarded into secure rubbish bins," she said adding that if or when, ASF arrives in the UK, farmers will experience pig movement restrictions, similar to those enforced by the authorities when foot and mouth struck in 2001, along with the emotional turmoil and the distressing images of the compulsory culling of herds.

Travelling wild boar cause a huge risk, as once the disease gets into wildlife, it can be really difficult to eradicate. In saying that, the disease is thought to have been brought into the Czech Republic after hospital workers from the Ukraine brought some traditional sausages back home with them which found their way into the waste of the hospital that was also being used for swill to feed pigs.

* AFS is easily transmitted from one animal to another, either through close contacts between individuals or by contaminated equipment such as vehicles or boots. It can also be transferred through food remains and survives cooking.