I have regular discussions with European Union (EU) ministers on a range of issues, including animal welfare. DEFRA would prefer to avoid the close confinement of all sows, but there are currently no free-farrowing systems suitable for widespread commercial adoption. Farrowing crates protect piglets from being crushed by the sow—one of the largest causes of pig mortality. It is equally important to maintain the welfare of the piglet as that of the sow.
There is a time limit on how long sows may be kept in farrowing crates: from seven days before the predicted day of farrowing until the piglets are weaned. After this period sows in the UK must be moved back to loose housing accommodation in which they are free to turn around easily.
We have funded research to test and develop commercially viable farrowing systems that provide adequate protection to piglets but do not closely confine the sow. As yet, the risk of piglet mortality in alternative systems remains unacceptably high. Our research will contribute to the European Food Safety Authority's examination of a range of issues, including farrowing systems, leading up to the next review of the EU Directive on pig welfare.