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The RSPCA Assured logo on any pork product means that the pigs were raised to the RSPCA’s exclusive higher welfare standards.
To try and answer that question, we spoke to RSPCA Assured pig farmer and self-proclaimed “voice of the pig”, Mark Jagger.
With a dedication to pigs and pig farming that spans decades, Mark was the 2021 winner of RSPCA Assured Outstanding Contribution to Pig Welfare. His passion for improving the industry means Mark never tires of helping to promote the adoption of systems that benefit both the health and welfare of pigs.
The RSPCA’s welfare standards say that pigs can be raised indoors or outdoors, and they can also be free-range or organic, but the majority of RSPCA Assured pigs are born outdoors and then raised indoors. Regardless, the most important thing for the RSPCA, and for me, is that the animals are well managed and cared for, whether that’s indoors or out.
Of course, pigs raised outside will usually have more room to roam around, while indoors pigs will enjoy more shelter and protection from the elements. But what I’ve found is that however they are kept, pigs love to root around; this is one of their natural behaviours, so it’s really important to make sure they have straw or sawdust or similar materials. Straw is ideal, it’s also a natural insulator for them to create a cosy bedding area and it also provides the roughage they need to consume every day.
It’s important to note that farrowing arcs are different to farrowing crates. Farrowing crates are used indoors and restrict the sow’s movement and her ability to build a nest. They are still legal in the UK but absolutely forbidden on RSPCA Assured farms.
A farrowing arc is an individual straw-bedded hut with sloping sides where the sow gives birth to her piglets and she can shelter, along with them, until they are weaned. Once born, the piglets stay with their mother for about four weeks. This is the pre-weaning period, after which they are transferred to a rearing/growing unit.
The piglets start out on breeding units, then they’re moved onto rearing/growing units, after which they might be moved onto finishing units.
A pig starts life in a breeding unit. This is where we keep the stud boars and the female breeding pigs, known as sows. Pigs aren’t like cows and sheep, they can get pregnant and give birth throughout the year, so we don’t talk about specific breeding seasons.
When they’re due to give birth, the sows are provided with individual farrowing arcs, if they’re outdoor-reared, or if they’re indoors, they’re moved into loose pens. Both of these systems make sure the sow is comfortable and has enough personal space away from other pigs to build a nest, give birth and nurse her babies.
After being transferred to rearing/growing units, the pigs usually stay there for about ten to 12 weeks. They could be outdoors in tents and runs, or indoors in kennels and yards or kept in large straw yards.
The thing to remember about pigs is that they need to establish a hierarchy and they can get aggressive while doing that. So once they’ve established themselves, it’s best not to mix them again. The RSPCA’s standards go a step further for larger pigs and insist that the boars be separated from the gilts (females). One of the reasons for this is to stop any injuries which may occur when the males reach sexual maturity.
As its name suggests, this is where the pigs come near the end. Pigs aren’t sent to slaughter at a particular age but rather when they reach a certain weight, between 90 - 115 kg; this is normally when they are around six months old. If the pigs are being transferred to finishing units, this happens when they reach about 50% of their target weight. The accommodation they receive here is similar to the environment they were used to at the rearing/growing unit, and again they can be kept indoors or outdoors. There isn’t much change.
The space the pigs have depends on the age and weight of the pigs, as well as the type of housing they are in. On RSPCA Assured farms, the pigs are often given more space to move around freely than on many other assurance schemes.
Actually, no. Contrary to popular belief and a lot of unfair expressions, pigs are naturally clean animals. Normally, pigs designate a particular area of their pen to be the toilet, then, as long as it’s not too hot and they’ve got enough space, they’ll return to that area when nature calls.
Pigs are fed a cereal-based diet which they eat as pellets or crushed up as a meal. On average, a pregnant sow will consume 10 kg of feed per day. In addition to this, they also drink a lot of water. The government guidelines state one nipple drinker per fifteen pigs, but on RSPCA Assured farms we work to a lower ratio and make sure that there’s at least one nipple drinker for every ten pigs.
The pigs are normally transported to the abattoir at about 20 weeks when they reach their required weight.
The RSPCA’s welfare standards cover every aspect of the pigs’ lives. Even transportation to the abattoir must always be carried out by a trained and approved RSPCA Assured haulier. To make it easier for the pigs to board the truck, the RSPCA’s standards insist that the slope of the loading ramp must be no more than eleven degrees. The use of electric prods, or goads to guide the pigs is also strictly forbidden as they can cause pain and stress.
Pigs must be slaughtered close to the place where they are raised, and this can’t be more than an eight-hour drive away. We’re always careful not to transport the pigs when it’s hot outside, so in warmer weather, we make sure we start early in the morning to avoid any risk of the pigs overheating.
Mark has been working in farming since before he could hold a shovel, quite literally, he was eight years old when a farmer handed him a shovel and told him to get started.
Since then, his love of animals has kept him not only in the trade but as an avid proponent for pig welfare, as Mark puts it himself, "Happy animals are healthy animals".