Tuesday, 2 September 2003

Why all our pigs are having a ball

FARMERS throughout the country have 90 days to put a toy in every pigsty or face up to three months in jail.

The new ruling from Brussels, which is to become law in Britain next week, is to keep pigs happy and prevent them chewing each other.

Official instructions to farmers are to give pigs “environmental enrichment” by providing “manipulable material”, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs last night defined as balls.

A spokesman said: “We mean footballs and basketballs. Farmers may also need to change the balls so the pigs don’t get tired with the same one. Different colour ones will do. These rules are based on good welfare. We don’t want to come across as the nanny state, but the important thing is to see pigs happy in their environment and they like to forage with their noses.”

He added that hanging chains were also good, since pigs could brush their noses against them. The Government is not ready to recommend specific toys, however, because they know of no firm manufacturing playthings for pigs.

But farmers should be careful about scoffing at the idea: they could be fined up to £1,000 or jailed for three months if they fail to amuse their stock. And Neville Meeker, who farms near Warminster in Wiltshire, was told by a farm standards official last week that he will lose the right to use the red tractor farm logo to market his pork if he does not buy a toy for each of 64 sties.

Mr Meeker, who has 1,200 pigs, said: “I have a note here which says toys must be placed in the sties. I haven’t a clue what it means.” Yesterday he tried out a plastic aeroplane and a grey furry teddy bear. They seemed to please a small group of piglets, but he was less enthusiastic: “These toys won’t last two minutes. We’ve got to give them something that is hard-wearing. It has to be durable enough to withstand chewing for at least six months and we can’t use wood because that will cause splinter injuries and pieces could get caught in pigs’ throats.”

He is also worried about the safety aspect of having toys scattered on pen floors.

He said: “I can’t have chains because the roof of the unit is not strong enough. Pigs would just pull it down. Sadly I don’t have an old beam. I suppose I will just have to buy some balls.”

In a letter to Farmers’ Weekly he complains: “Yes, the day of the toy inspector has arrived, and it is not a TV spoof. It is the dictators of Europe who have thought this up. Good job the January sales are on. Hamleys here we come.”

He was worried, too, that he needed just one toy for every sty with 20 pigs. “Will this cause fighting? I remember how children react.”

Mark White, past president of the Pig Veterinary Society, said: “Pigs have a habit of chewing each other and they do it in all environments and especially go for pigs’ tails and ears. Animal welfarists have been arguing that we should not dock tails of pigs. Some believe it is unnecessary mutilation for aesthetic and not for medical reasons. They think if we provide pigs with things to relieve their boredom then they will not chew each other.”

He suggested softwood logs, ships’ buoys and plastic piping.

Valerie Elliott

This article appeared in the Times on January 29, 2003.