Over the years, I’ve been on many undercover investigations in UK factory farms.
But it doesn’t matter how many times I’ve clambered over fences in the thick of night drawing towards some ominous concrete building, there is always a sickness in the pit of my stomach. Scaling the walls of pig farms and exposing the reality of these hellholes might seem like the work of someone fearless, but, I’m not that brave. I fear for what I will confront, I fear for my, and my colleague’s, safety.
Despite this sense of dread, we keep going. We keep going because every time we enter one of these foul places there is a trough of misery and pain that cameras help us expose – and we need a way of telling people what is really going on to put meat on their plate.
This year, Viva!’s investigations have focused on pig farming through our campaign Face Off. I appeared on the first film - and this and other Face Off footage has now been viewed by a million people and counting.
We have investigated and published reports into eight farms across England and found a steady, insanitary stream of horrific conditions that, while almost everyone who views this footage is appalled, when we report it to the authorities the usual response is – silence!
And this smell of political rot is becoming more entrenched – stretched budgets at Defra, and other areas of animal health protection mean that, instead of things improving as they should be, they are actually getting worse.
Take, for example, my first trip to Necton Pig Farm in Norfolk where we made our undercover film for Face Off in 2015 – we went back there a couple of months ago and nothing had changed. This despite the fact we’d reported potentially illegal occurrences such as sows being restrained in so called insemination ‘rape racks’ overnight. These devices constrained them so tightly they were almost immobilised. One female deeply upset me, she still had fight in her. She was trying to escape and I walked to her and tried to soothe her. Her eyes were a beautiful pale blue and so I named her Blue.
We reported the dead and dying pigs and faeces everywhere – and still similar scenes confronted us on the second visit.
It wouldn’t happen in the wild, but sometimes pigs on intensive farms resort to cannibalism. One terrified animal lay at the back of a pen unable to move, as another chewed on his leg. His pain and terror must have been unimaginable. The image of this one pig’s face still haunts me. Elsewhere a pig had died and, driven by boredom and the madness of confinement, some of the other animals had ripped his thigh open. It shows utter contempt for these animals, that the farm workers had not bothered to remove the dying and dead.
But, while we have singled Necton Hall Farm out, the facility is by no means unique – shown by the fact that when one national journalist contacted the National Pig Association with our footage they tried to put them off by reportedly saying: “This is just how pig farming is”. Something that was made doubly difficult to deal with at Viva! because this claim did apparently actually put the journalist off covering the story.
After all, there are around 4.9 million pigs alive in Britain at any one time and most are factory farmed in very similar conditions as we saw at Necton. A tiny percentage of pigs are organically farmed in the UK and this sector is in decline - with a population of only 35,000 pigs at any one time in 2013, compared to 71,000 in 2008.
About 40 per cent of sows give birth outdoors, yet almost all of the piglets born outside will be reared intensively in industrial units. In fact, a staggering 90 per cent of British pigs reared for meat are kept indoors. Although some farms allow straw, most pigs are condemned to barren hovels with just footballs or chains hanging from the ceiling as a pitiful form of ‘environmental enrichment’.
Pigs are highly intelligent animals and are meant to spend their days exploring their woodland homes, snuffling for food and playing with family. They roam 2 to 15km a night. They are fun loving, sociable animals, but in this place even the smallest of pigs wear an expression of complete despair.
Pigs and all other farmed animals deserve our compassion and once you have opened your eyes you do have to have courage not to close them again and raise awareness of the appalling situations. Of course, you can take the most direct – and easiest – action of all and become vegan.
But one thing is true – unless we wake up to what is happening in these farms, the Government will continue to get away with treating the factory farmers as their ‘customers’. And the British people will continue to be force fed the line that we have the ‘best animal standards in the world’ – something that you only have to take a peek at any of our films to realise that simply is not true.
You can take part in the Viva! Face Off Challenge here.