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The only way is ethics: high welfare farming

Tim Wilson of The Ginger Pig on the misleading nature of labels and using common sense when it comes to animal welfare

It’s been almost 25 years since the Ginger Pig’s founder Tim Wilson came face to face with the issue of animal welfare. Having started out with just three Tamworth pigs—inspired mainly by the wish to fill the pigsty that came with the dilapidated manor house he had just bought—he had, by virtue of his increasingly renowned stalls in the north of England and Borough Market, ended up with a small farm. “I had the pigs, and I wanted a herd of longhorn cattle—but I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing my animals off on the back of a lorry to a livestock market,” he says, feelingly. Though mercifully less common now, in those days there was a middle stage between the farm and the abattoir: the livestock market, where animals from 20 or 30 different farms are stamped with ‘lot marks’ and bundled together for buyers to bid on.

“The animals are incredibly stressed. The farm and their family are all they have ever known, and then they are pushed onto lorries with 20 or 30 different animals from different families and travel miles to an auction,” Tim continues. “They are not merchandise. They are living beings.” So Tim decided to take his own livestock from field to abattoir, and cut out the middle man.

“Many years ago, a vet told me that animals should be killed as close as possible to where they are born—and it’s a good rule to go by.” To go from farm to a local abattoir is not the best thing in the world, Tim continues, “but it is the least of all evils when it comes to animal farming.” Animals get more stressed the further they are transported and the longer they have to wait in the abattoir—another factor the Ginger Pig strives to minimise, with less than half an hour from arrival to slaughter. “We are a meat-eating nation. We are going to eat meat,” Tim says simply, “and if you want to see animals in fields and pheasants on walks, you have to farm and manage them. But we should, if we’re going to do that, look after our livestock with integrity and care.”

A question of quality
It’s a question of honour, but it’s a question of quality too. An animal that is stressed at the time of slaughter will not taste as good as one that’s relaxed. Yet, generally speaking, we are “pretty good as a nation” when it comes to animal welfare, says Tim. “The farmer’s wealth is his animals, and he won’t have them badly treated. They are his livelihood,” he continues. But if we want things to stay that way, we need to be prepared to pay for it.

“One of the problems, as well as one of the merits, of English farming is that we have high standards, imposed by rules and regulations that don’t apply to the rest of continent.” A farmer in eastern Europe can fit 80 pigs into a hut in which famers here will only fit 60. They can use farrowing crates, which prevent the sow from turning around for up to five weeks around the time of farrowing—the theory being that she may crush her piglets, though the reality leaves her cramped and frustrated. This makes British meat less competitive: “Though everyone wants to buy British, at a certain price point, certain suppliers start sourcing from Europe.”

Animal welfare is expensive. There’s no getting round it. “Even straw is a valuable asset. It’s about £100 a tonne, and at this time of year animals want plenty of fresh bedding.” It’s one thing in summer, when animals are happy enough lying outside on a patch of grass, but come the colder, wetter months, pigs and cattle are far happier indoors. “Of course, we leave cattle in the fields for as long as possible. They are still out now, because it’s mild,” says Tim, “but when the field gets wet, it poaches.” Poaching is the term used to describe a wet field which has been churned up by a herd’s-worth of hooves. “Cattle are group animals. In a 40-acre field you’ll have all 20 of the herd congregating in one corner. That’s a lot of wear on the land,” he explains. “It leaves the field muddy and sticky, which they don’t like, and if they were left out all winter there’d be no grass left for them to eat come the following spring.”

Straw-lined sheds
Does this mean the Ginger Pig’s meat is less ‘free range’ than it would be were the cattle out all year round? Tim doesn’t think so—but then, “free range is a funny term. Certain breeds of cattle are adapted to being outside, roaming wide areas of land, all year round—just like sheep are. You’d never bring sheep indoors. But—and this goes back to welfare—it all depends where they are from.” Every area has its own breed, he continues, and it’s wrong to take a breed developed for one kind of environment and subject it to another. That’s why he opted for the longhorn. It thrives on pasture in summer and for most of autumn but, come winter time, looks forward to being in Tim’s huge sheds, “the size of aircraft hangers” and the shelter they offer from hail, rain and storms.

“On days when the weather is bad, they are gathered by the gate. They are ready to come in,” he says. When they do finally enter the straw-lined sheds they “run about and play in it, just as they do in spring when they’re put to pasture.” The straw is replenished every other day, in thick rolls like carpet, keeping the animals dry, healthy and warm. “There’s no way you can look at pigs and cattle in fields in pouring rain and hail, and think they are happier out there,” Tim exclaims. “So much of good farming is just common sense.” Free range, organic—these terms can get confusing. “What we should be asking about,” he concludes, “is animal welfare.”