A BAN on all cages for farm animals is the subject of a new public petition which has been launched by animal rights charity OneKind this week.

Phasing out of farrowing crates in the pig industry is already being looked at in England, with Scotland soon to announce its own pig code, which is likely to follow a similar direction of travel.

However, the notion of an immediate ban has sparked concerns from pig producers, many of whom can clearly remember the impact of the UK ban on stalls and tethers in 1999 and how this led to a ‘decimation of the UK pig industry’.

Chief executive of Scottish Pig Producers,Andy McGowan,was open to the idea of a future ban on farrowing crates but stressed that this would only work if a viable alternative was made available and support was given to encourage producers to change their practices:

“Farrowing crates have been a necessary tool used for many years that balances the temporary restriction on welfare of the sow, with an undoubted reduction in piglet mortality.

“As a sector, we feel that if someone can come up with alternative technologies that allow us to deliver the minimum piglet mortality without constraining the sow then there will be no arguments from the commercial pig industry. There are some promising systems beginning to appear in the market.”

However, he made the point that it would be ‘naïve’ to believe that UK consumers would pay more for these changes and referenced the previous ban which was made on stalls and tethers in the late 90’s which didn’t have the desired impact.

“We banned stalls and tethers 13 years before the rest of the EU, but what happened was our pig industry halved in size because EU labelling laws did not allow us to communicate this to consumers,” said Mr McGowan.

“This effectively led to us exporting our problems elsewhere as imports flooded in at much lower prices and standards, then suddenly half of the UK pig industry disappeared. You can’t expect consumers to make informed choices unless you can put this information on the label.”

Currently half of the pigs in Scotland are not born in farrow crates as they are outdoor bred, but Mr McGowan explained why forcing all producers to follow suit wouldn’t be a viable option: “Only certain parts of Scotland are suitable for outdoor pig production, such as the light free-draining soils on the east coast.”

The answer, he suggested, lies in the development of practical systems which, with grant support and considerate planning permission, will see the required investments being made on indoor units.

“As we move towards developing future agricultural policies, our key ask will be for future grant schemes to support this transition and to ensure our industry isn’t trashed in the process,” he urged.

OneKind's public petition has received around 107,000 signatures so far: “Our farm animals need to walk, run, fly and peck and forage outdoors,” said OneKind director Bob Elliot. “Yet millions of sentient animals in Scotland still spend their lives, or important parts of their lives, confined in cages where they are unable to carry out these natural behaviours.”

Veterinarian Dr Siobhan Mullan who has carried out animal welfare research over the past 12 years, claimed that producers haven’t been breeding pigs to retain maternal signals which could lead to a decrease in piglet mortality: “We have been using farrowing crates for so long that we have slightly overlooked evidence showing that current sows in the pig production population don’t signal to their piglets as well as a less developed sow would, that she was going to lie down.

“The natural behaviour of a sow is to give this special grunt before she turns to warn her piglets. We haven’t been breeding to retain that and I think there are things we can do in future to promote maternal signals. We strongly believe that farmers will innovate to make systems work,” she concluded.