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30,000 pigs culled since September due to supply chain issues and worker shortages

Thousands of healthy pigs have been culled since September thanks to shortages of labour and CO2, while Covid has delayed temporary worker visas.

Two pigs in hay

Farmers are forced to cull pigs when there are labour shortages in abattoirs. Image: Pixabay

Around 30,000 pigs have been culled on British farms since September due to supply chain and labour issues, the government has revealed.

In an answer to a parliamentary question from shadow minister Jim McMahon, government minister Victoria Prentis said on Tuesday that a large “backlog of pigs” has accumulated on farms due to a “unique combination of factors”.

This included “the Covid-19 pandemic, shortages of labour in the processing sector, interruption of CO2 supplies and disruptions to the export market,” she said. 

Mass culling of healthy pigs began last year when a shortage of abattoir workers and butchers meant that farmers were forced to kill pigs in order to make space on farms and ensure welfare standards could be maintained.

Many experts have pointed to changing immigration rules related to Brexit and workers choosing to return home following the UK’s exit from the EU as a driving force behind labour shortages in the industry.

CO2 shortages – required for the slaughtering process – have also contributed to the problems. 

Last November, it was estimated that the sector was down by around 15 to 20 per cent on the staff required. Pig prices have fallen dramatically, and some farms have been forced out of business as a result. 

Since then the crisis has continued, with the National Pig Association (NPA) estimating that numbers may be even higher than Prentis outlined, saying around 35,000 pigs have been culled since the beginning of the crisis in September. 

Prentis said Defra does not collect data on the number of pigs culled, meaning the numbers could actually be even higher than 35,000. 

In spite of repeated pleas from pig farmers for compensation, Prentis recently responded to a parliamentary question on the matter by saying that the government “does not provide financial support for the culling of animals”.

“Responsibility for animal welfare on the farm remains with the owner/keeper, who should have contingency plans in place to ensure the welfare of their animals,” she added.

Last October the government attempted to increase staffing levels in the sector by offering seasonal visas to workers from abroad, but delays due to the Omicron variant of coronavirus mean that many are yet to arrive. 

More recently, it opened a Slaughter Incentive Payment Scheme (SIPS) which contributed to the cost of extra slaughter shifts at abattoirs. 

Farmers remain concerned that government measures won’t be enough to tackle the crisis, however, warning that further farms could be put out of business if more stringent measures aren’t taken.

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Prentis said the government was tackling the issue with several different measures.

“We have provided a package of measures to help address the challenging circumstances that the pig sector has faced. These include temporary work visas for up to 800 pork butchers, and Private Storage Aid (PSA) and Slaughter Incentive Payment (SIP) schemes to facilitate an increase in the throughput of pigs through abattoirs.

“In addition, Defra continues to work with the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board and other government departments to expand existing markets and to open up new export markets for British pork,” she said.

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