Farmers are routinely docking the tails of pigs bred for the table despite the introduction of legislation banning the practice four years ago, according to new research that challenges the claim that British pigs are reared without cruelty.
About 88 per cent of the domestically reared pigs ending up on the shelves of the nation's leading grocery chains have had part of their tails sliced off, according to figures supplied by the major supermarkets obtained by The Independent.
The animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), which gathered the information in a survey for its annual supermarket awards tomorrow, said it showed the nine million pigs slaughtered annually in the UK were kept in "horrendous, overcrowded" conditions.
Farmers say docking is necessary to prevent infection as a result of bites from fellow animals; a pig with a docked tail will move away much more quickly from an attempted nip than a pig with a full tail. To dock, farmers cut off a portion of the tail with a pair of pliers or a knife, frequently without anaesthetic.
Under the EU 2001 Pig Directive, which became law in the UK in 2003, docking can only be carried out when there is a real risk of tail-biting and where other attempts to improve the condition of the pigs have failed.
But the supermarkets' evidence when entering the Compassionate Supermarket Survey suggests the practice is happening all the time. The CIWF asked the biggest grocery chains a series of questions about conditions for the rearing of animals such as pigs, veal calves, chickens, and fish. Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Somerfield, and the Co-op responded. Asda did not.
Based on the stores' market share, CIWF estimated that the total proportion of pigs bred for UK supermarkets that had their tails docked was 88 per cent.
Although a slight improvement on a previous survey in 2005, the group said that the British pig industry was systematically engaged in a cruel practice and that the Government tacitly allowed tail-docking by failing to enforce the law.
Scientific studies showed that tail-biting could largely be prevented by providing straw or other manipulable materials and keeping a lower density of pigs in a pen, said Compassion in World Farming. Its chief policy adviser, Peter Stevenson, said that pigs were intelligent, inquisitive animals that required toys or other material that they could play with such as straw or wood.
"Most of them are subjected to real classical factory farming indoors most of their lives in very barren environments. There is nothing for them to do," he said.
The British Pig Executive denied docking was routine and said it was carried out on all types of pig farms where tail-biting had been a problem. Its spokesman Andrew Knowles said animals that lived both inside and outside had their tails cut off and the practice was not related to overcrowding.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said the procedure should only be carried out as a last resort and that vets in the Government's veterinary service, Animal Health, advised farmers of good practice.