'A hard pill to take' - Farmer culls pigs after 50 years amid workforce crisis
- Credit: Nick Butcher
An award-winning East Anglian pig farmer has been forced to cull his entire herd after 50 years in the industry, amid mounting financial losses and an acute worker shortage.
Peter Mortimer, of Fir Tree Farm in Metfield, near Harleston, started keeping pigs in 1964.
But now he has decided to send his 140-sow herd to slaughter as a result of an unfolding industry crisis which has left him losing £10-£15 for every animal he produces.
He said farmers already "losing money hand over fist" after months of low prices and high feed costs are now dealing with a huge backlog of animals as a result of a post-Brexit shortage of workers in abattoirs and meat processing factories.
Industry groups fear that more than 120,000 surplus pigs may soon need to be culled on farms and incinerated - described as a potential "catastrophe" for the welfare of both the animals and their keepers.
Mr Mortimer shares those concerns, but with the help of Norfolk abattoir HG Blake, he says none of his animals were killed on the farm, and they will all still go into the food chain.
But the 73-year-old said it was still a difficult decision, after a career including countless livestock prizes and a special long-service award at the 2019 Royal Norfolk Show.
"It is a hard pill to take, I must admit," he said. "It has taken a bit of getting my head around, and at times you do feel you are letting the family down, but they say it's not.
"You have just got to get on and do what you think is best. It is no good carrying on racking up debts that nobody can sustain, so we decided to get out.
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"We farrowed our last lot of pigs this weekend. We still have 30-40 sows still left here, by the end of this month we won't have any sows left at all, and come the end of February we won't have any pigs left on the farm. In the meantime, we have got to feed all these pigs across the industry at very high prices.
"You can't feed pigs when wheat is £200 per tonne and soya is £370 per tonne. It is the first time in 50 years that I can remember being hammered both ways, with pig prices going down all the while and feed costs going up.
"So what are you going to do with 100,000 pigs that are getting too big for what the supermarkets want them for?"
Mr Mortimer said the final straw for his business was when he tried to recruit two new employees – only to find there were no applicants.
Farming groups including the National Pig Association (NPA) have warned that surplus pigs may need to be culled on farms within days unless action is taken.
They have repeatedly urged the government to offer temporary visas for butchers, similar to those offered offered to poultry workers and HGV drivers to fill critical vacancies.
NPA chief executive Zoe Davies said at least 600 healthy pigs have already been culled nationally by "a handful of farms", and warned that while there has not been a mass cull of pigs yet, such a measure is "the next stage in the process".
The RSPCA is also urging the government to take immediate steps to the stop healthy animals being shot on farms due to slaughterhouse and butchery worker shortages.
Emma Slawinski, the charity's director of advocacy and policy, said: "Farmers want to do the right thing and get their animals to slaughterhouses where they can be slaughtered more humanely. If the government wants to be a world leader for animal welfare - it needs to take action now to avert this welfare catastrophe.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of failing to take the plight of pig farmers seriously.
When questioned on BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday about the possibility that thousands of surplus pigs could be culled and destroyed, he said: “I hate to break it to you but I am afraid our food processing industry does involve the killing of a lot of animals. I think your viewers need to understand that.”