Don’t Stall on Sow Stalls!

Sow stalls are a shocking scandal. To my mind, as they’re an animal welfare issue they’re much more offensive than any meat mislabelling problem, and yet few people even know what sow stalls are. So let’s start by quoting Wikipedia:

A gestation crate, also known as a sow stall, is a metal enclosure used in intensive pig farming, in which a female breeding pig (sow) may be kept during pregnancy, and in effect for most of her adult life. The enclosures measure 6.6 ft x 2.0 ft (2 m x 60 cm) and house sows that weigh up to 600 lbs (270 kg).

The floors of the crates are made of concrete, and are slatted to allow waste to be collected below. As the sows outgrow the crates, they must sleep on their chests, unable to turn around. A few days before giving birth, they are moved to farrowing crates, where they are able to lie down to nurse while being held apart from their piglets.

Pork producers argue that they are needed because sows who are housed together will fight. Animal advocates regard their use as one of the most inhumane features of intensive animal agriculture.

Nowhere near a sow stallI know a bit about pigs. We keep them every now and then, originally as I was keen to show the children where meat came from. I was then shocked at the way these intelligent and sociable animals could be treated when farmed commercially. I’ll spare you the pictures of the sow stalls and show you one of our Large Blacks, which are among the most endearing and easy tempered animals I’ve ever come across.

The UK banned sow stalls in 1999, with the support of retailers and processors. It amazed me that we continued to cheerfully import pork and bacon from countries that hadn’t. As with the horsemeat issue, cost, of course, was the reason why. Since 2002 the UK has imported more and more pig meat, from countries where sow stalls were still used. Their pig meat was cheaper, of course. This was despite the EU* passing legislation in 2001 requiring other member States to do the same.

Twelve years later there are still 17 EU States flouting the ban on sow stalls. Portugal is only 58% compliant and France 72%, for example. Even Denmark, one of the biggest importers of pig meat into the UK, is only 94% compliant.

The National Pig Association launched a Wall of Fame (and Shame), on which it carries the names of UK food retailers and processors who have signed up to buying their pig meat from compliant sources. How many retailers have currently signed up to sourcing all their meat products this way? Two.

Let’s charitably interpret this as another symptom of the difficulty in unpicking the wretchedly complicated supply chains in the food industry – the list has only been live for a month. It’s a story worth following, though. How long will it take the consumer to understand that ethically produced food costs more?

*To my mind, without proper labelling best not to eat pork or bacon at all if you’re in the U.S., where most producers still use sow stalls.

At The Bath and West Show

I had a great if knackering time at the Royal Bath and West Show last week. There were a few highlights on the stand, not least meeting Sophie Wessex, who seems genuinely interested in establishing a meadow at Bagshot Park. Hurrah! I enjoyed chatting to friends who this year included BBC Somerset’s Emma Britton, Graham Langford the Poll Dorset man, Andrew Hecks, Martin Snell our Large Black pig breeder, Bernie “The Choirboy” Perkins, and various folk from the village. I met some nice new folk too, including local herbalist Zoe Hawes (author of the excellent “Wild Drugs”) and the man from the impressive Bees Abroad. Thanks everyone for popping by. Apart from a brief visit to Orchard Pig I stayed clear of the cider tents this year, but had a lunchtime pasty and pint of Bath Ale’s Summer’s Hare – a lovely drop. As usual though the stars of the show were the animals…

Too many pints of Summer's Hare

Local Pork

I’ve just booked our three not-so-little-at-all now Large Black pigs in for the chop. I’m not looking forward to it.To be honest I still get a bit quivery about it, although it has become part of our annual routine. Anyway, I reckon it’s important to see the whole thing through; if you’re not a vegetarian then you should know what the process involves.
It strikes me as odd that while consumers are starting to get concerned about animal welfare and local food provenance there isn’t more of a fuss made about how they are slaughtered. I suppose that compared to things like farrowing crates it seems like a minor issue. I suppose too that people don’t like to think about it. We don’t now eat any meat that doesn’t have a local provenance we’re happy with (or our own), and that includes where the animal it came from was killed. Yes, I know – it’s one of the perks of living in the country and having a bit more money than many to spend on food.
We make a particular effort to get our own pigs to the nearest small abattoir, and when we arrive there is no waiting around. Unfortunately most animals are not so lucky. Livestock is often taken on a transporter for miles before being penned for a long wait at an enormous “facility”, often with other, frightened animals. It’s far from great. The DIY approach a friend of ours remembers from his time in France is long gone, and ironically many local abattoirs have closed down, apparently under the cost and demands of health and animal welfare legislation – we’re lucky to have a choice of a couple within an hour’s drive. From the point of view of the end product it’s not good either; stressed meat won’t taste as good.
So next time you buy some pork ask your butcher whether the producer uses a local abattoir. Bet you he won’t know, but he ought to.
Related Posts: Pigs

Three Little Pigs

The Third Little Pig
The arrival of the latest weaners in our orchard – two Large Black gilts and a boar – gives me the chance to have a cute pig picture on the blog, celebrate rare breeds, and talk about meadow management. The Large Black is a fabulous pig; good eating, well behaved, hardy, and doesn’t root like a maniac. Unsurprisingly it was once a common breed, successfully exported all over the world – so what happened ? Apparently, and like many rare breeds, it was a victim of consumer fashion; from the 60s the meat trade stopped buying coloured pigs. Ridiculous. We’re lucky enough to be half an hour away from Martin Snell, one of the top breeders in the country, which makes them even more of a no-brainer. We’re not proper pig people; all we do is buy the weaners in and fatten them up over the next 3 months. They’re incredibly easy. Do visit the breeders’ association website for more information. The pigs also do us a favour by turning the ground over and opening the sward up, either for new seeding or to give this year’s annuals’ seeds a better chance next spring. These need disturbance and good contact with open soil.


I’ve had a love affair with Large Black Pigs over the last few years. I’m not a full time swineherd, but we buy our pigs in as weaners every year and fatten them up. Once common, they are a Rare Breed now, but excellent for beginners like us as they’re very phlegmatic and easy to keep. We let ours wander around the orchard with the odd length of one strand electric fence coralling them in (in sharp contrast with the entertaining but hooligan Tamworths my friend Spon keeps down the road). I am also appalled at the conditions in which pigs are often kept commercially and our Large Blacks make fantastic eating, so we no longer buy sausages, pork, pancetta or ham.

Large Black Pig, Winter 2008/9
Large Black Pig, Winter 2008/9
They fulfill a useful function for the meadow too, by opening up the sward with their rooting. The breed is not known for being particularly aggressive at excavating, but they do the business. I’ve just sorted out delivery of our next three weaners in October, which is perfect. I have dragged around the green hay from an existing patch of meadow to where the pigs will be, hoping that the seeds from it will do well on the bare earth they will leave. We should have a new annual rich meadow area as a result – albeit one that will need some rolling!