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Scandalous Tails

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I've just been shocked, truly shocked.

My day started early, meeting my colleague from Compassion in World Farming at London's St Pancras International Station to catch an early Eurostar train to Brussels. (I'm proud to be a patron of Compasssion, the leading charity working to advance the welfare of farm animals.) Our two-hour journey passes quickly and we hasten to the European Parliament, go through security, (tight), and on to our large, theatre-style meeting room.

We are being hosted by Dan Jørgensen, a Member of the European Parliament (MEP), leader of the Danish delegation of Social Democrats and vice-chair of the Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety. He is also president of the Parliament's Intergroup on the Welfare and Conservation of Animals.

The plan is to show a new film about pig farming in Europe to other MEPs and officials from the European Commission. I haven't seen this film yet.

The meeting begins; Mr Jørgensen welcomes guests and a Compassion colleague explains the situation. I've read my brief - I know what this is about.

The European Union (EU) law known as the Pigs Directive was updated twelve years ago. Its stated aim is to set minimum standards to protect the welfare of pigs right across the EU.

Since 2003 it has required all farmers to provide enrichment material for their pigs - something for these highly inquisitive animals to get their snouts into, like straw, wood shavings or old mushroom compost. I know that in natural conditions pigs will spend about three-quarters of their waking hours using their snouts to root in the soil for grubs or tubers to eat, or just in exploring their surroundings.

In the huge factory farms which characterise pig farming in Europe and North America and increasingly in countries like China (where half the world's pigs are to be found), pigs are usually kept indoors on floors of concrete and/or slats. The slatted area allows the excreta to fall through.

This kind of set-up makes a nod to hygiene but it is a rotten environment for curious, active pigs. There is nothing in which to root -except at feeding time - and that doesn't last for long. Hence the very sensible legal obligation to provide some material for the pigs to manipulate, something in which they can root, something which will occupy and interest them.

There's another very good reason for providing such enrichment material. Without it, the pigs appear more stressed and frustrated. The only interesting thing to investigate may be the tail of another pig. Research shows that pigs in such barren surroundings are much more likely to bite each other's tails.

A bitten tail can be painful and serious cases can lead to infection and abscesses of the spine. The old-fashioned solution has been to cut off the tails of piglets at a few days old, a painful mutilation usually done without pain relief.

There's another legal requirement in the Pigs Directive. It says pigs' tails should not be routinely docked. Before docking pigs' tails the farmer must try other methods to stop tail-biting such as enriching the pigs' environment.

Ten years after these two rules became law, you would think every pig farmer in the EU would be following them. You would presume governments would be enforcing the law and the European Commission would be taking action against any governments failing in their duty.
Sadly, think again.

Compassion in World Farming has just filmed inside 45 pig farms in six EU countries. Just one was obeying the law. That's shocking. But my worst shock was seeing the film footage from Compassion's investigations. Here were pigs on slatted floors, covered in excrement, lame pigs, injured, bleeding pigs, dying pigs, dead pigs left to rot. It was a horror film - but so much worse than seeing a horror movie, because this was reality.

So I'm shocked, shocked that any farmer worth that honourable title would treat their pigs like that. I'm shocked that governments, vets and farmers' organisations haven't seen that the law is followed. I'm shocked that the European Commission is only starting to take action.

Most of all I'm shocked and sick to my stomach that in this day and age those wonderful animals, those sentient beings, are suffering day after day in such misery. And to think this is likely to be happening not just in the EU but anywhere in the world where such farms are commonplace from North Carolina to northern China.

Compassion is, rightly, urging political action. I think we all need to do a little soul-searching and a lot of speaking out. As members of society we have to make it clear that this kind of illegal farming is totally unacceptable, and that we want all farm animals to be given a decent quality of life. Surely we owe them no less.

Take action for pigs by signing Compassion's petition calling for an end to the illegal treatment of pigs in the EU.

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