The Crate Escape: Winchester animal welfare expert joins calls for ban on pig farrowing crates

4 Apr 2023
A sow in a farrowing crate

Dr Steven McCulloch, Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Studies in the University of Winchester's Centre for Animal Welfare, delivered a speech at The Crate Escape Parliamentary reception in Westminster. The Crate Escape campaign calls on the Government to end the inhumane use of farrowing crates for pigs.

The campaign is led by the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and supported by Compassion in World Farming and Humane Society International UK. It is based on a report, Banning Farrowing Crates in the UK: Transitioning to Free Farrowing to Meet the Welfare Needs of Pigs, which Dr McCulloch produced for the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation in 2022.

Below you can read Dr McCulloch’s Westminster speech, delivered as Head of Research of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, on 15 March 2023.

Dr Steve McCulloch at a parliamentary reception 15-3-23 to campaign for a ban on farrowing crates

"First of all, enormous thanks to Mark Francois MP for kindly hosting this important event in Parliament today. Last year I wrote this report for the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation. It’s called Banning Farrowing Crates in the UK: Transitioning to Free Farrowing to Meet the Welfare Needs of Pigs. After writing the report, I would describe crates as something of an anachronism. And I would say that their continued existence means this: That the British pig industry has pulled the wool over the UK Government’s eyes. So, in my short talk I will explain first why crates are an anachronism. And then I will explain how the British pig industry has used piglet mortality as a smokescreen to cloud the judgement of successive governments.

In the UK, 60% of our breeding herd farrows indoors. And almost all of these are kept in crates – around 200,000 sows. Sows are kept in crates for five weeks each litter, and they farrow 2.3 times each year. So, sows are kept confined in this way for 80 days each year, or nearly a quarter of their adult breeding lives. And for farrowing crates, a picture tells a thousand words. So, I’m glad that we have these graphic images of crates in Parliament today. They are depressing. But they vividly convey the miserable reality for British sows in their closely confined farrowing crates.

And you don’t need to be a veterinary surgeon, or be an expert in animal welfare, to see that crates cause immense suffering. Pigs are highly sentient, intelligent, and social animals. As a lecturer in animal welfare I occasionally give talks to school children. Always, without guidance, the school children correctly explain how crates cannot meet welfare needs of pigs. And representative polls tell us that British citizens and consumers strongly oppose confining sows in crates.

#TheCrateEscape campaign video. Reproduced with permission from the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation

Because crates cause the most severe degree of confinement of any farming system in the UK or European Union. Sows are able to stand up and lie down. But you can see they are not even able to turn around. They are not able to root and dig to explore their environment. Pigs are not able to interact with their piglets or with other sows. And pregnant sows are not able to build a nest before birth, which is a highly motivated innate behaviour.

In summary, the severe physical and behavioural restrictions leads to substantial stresses and prolonged suffering. There is no way that farrowing crates can meet the welfare needs of sows. From the perspective of the sow, the crate is just the same as the sow stall. And in the UK, we banned the stall in 1999. And we were absolutely right to fully outlaw stalls, nearly a quarter of a century ago, before the EU’s partial ban in 2013.

Crates and stalls are cages that cause the same degree of severe confinement. Stalls are used for the duration of a sow’s 115-day pregnancy, to minimise economic inputs. Crates are used for five weeks around farrowing, ostensibly to reduce piglet mortality. But in reality, they are also used to minimise costs.

And this is where piglet mortality comes in. Because the pig industry, too, knows how these cages look. Because if you think about it, there is only one possible defence for these anachronistic cages. And that is if they were somehow necessary to prevent some greater suffering. And this is precisely what the pig industry claims. The claim is that crates are necessary to reduce piglet mortality, so Government must permit their continued use.

But the piglet mortality claim is a smokescreen. And to date it has clouded the good judgement of successive governments. The evidence tells us this clearly.

First, in the UK, 40% of sows farrow freely outdoors – without the use of crates. Piglet mortality on outdoor farms is lower than on indoor farms: 11.9% compared to 13.2%.

Second, Switzerland implemented a full ban on farrowing crates from 2007. Piglet mortality in Switzerland is 11.1%, which is lower than the 12.2% figure in the UK, over the same period. Norway also has a lower piglet mortality at 12.0%.

Third, the DEFRA-funded PigSAFE free-farrowing system has been designed based on the welfare needs of sows. Studies show that PigSAFE has produced comparable, and often lower piglet mortality, compared to crates.

Farrowing crates are not necessary to reduce piglet mortality. Crates are also not consistent with global leadership in animal welfare. Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, Germany, and Austria have banned farrowing crates. The European Union has announced its intention to ban all cages, including crates, by 2027.

Sir David Amess was a wonderful Parliamentary champion for animal welfare. Before his murder, Sir David introduced the Pig (Husbandry) Farrowing Bill, to ban the use of crates, in 2021.

The Crate Escape Campaign urges Government to launch a consultation on banning the use of farrowing crates. A ban would be supported by strong scientific evidence as well as overwhelming British public opinion. A ban would be a fitting tribute to Sir David Amess."

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