A collaborative and evidence-based approach to the issue of tail damage

Kate Parkes of the RSPCA’s Farm Animals Department discusses the current position regarding the Freedom Food scheme and tail docking

Since the launch of the Freedom Food scheme in 1994, pig scheme members have only been permitted to tail dock in exceptional circumstances. The RSPCA welfare standards for pigs have, over time, evolved to reduce the negative impact of the procedure, ensuring that it’s really only carried out when absolutely necessary in order to reduce the very real welfare issues caused by an outbreak of tail biting.

In 1998 the standards changed so that permission to tail dock had to be sought from the RSPCA Farm Animals Department (FAD). And from 2005 a limit (no more than half the tail) was put on the amount that could be removed by Freedom Food producers when permission to dock was granted.

The most recent change was made in 2012 when it was decided that a minimum of 6cm (roughly 2/3 of the tail) had to be left at the time of docking. This followed consultation with the RSPCA pig standards working group, and took account of scientific research showing that shorter docking was likely to be associated with greater pain due the increased number of nerve fibres cut. The new standard also required producers to avoid variation in tail length, based on research showing the increased risk of biting this posed.

However, despite this, reports were received from some Freedom Food members of increased levels of tail biting.

As a higher-welfare scheme, the last thing that Freedom Food or the RSPCA wanted to see was worse welfare due to an increase in biting. The RSPCA has always been clear that while it wants to see a move to non-docking in the long term, this mustn’t be at the expense of an increase in biting.

To determine the scale and cause of these reports, the FAD began collating information on the number of units affected, while trials were undertaken by Freedom Food members and their veterinary surgeons to establish the length of piglet tails at the time of docking and the effect of different tail lengths on subsequent levels of biting.

The data and information collected indicated that the reports of increased tail biting appeared to be related to the variation in tail length, rather than to a longer tail being left. This seemed to be due to tails shorter than 6cm in length not being docked, resulting in varying tail lengths within a pen.

After consultation with our pig standards working group, it was decided not amend the new standards. Instead, we’ll be reiterating the importance of avoiding variation in tail length – and the need to remove the tip of the tail of those pigs with shorter tails when docking a batch.

The issue of tail damage impacts on the entire pig industry. In order to progress it, a collaborative approach – involving producers, their vets, farm assurance schemes, the allied industries and scientists – is essential. That’s why it’s so positive that the industry’s 20:20 Pig Health and Welfare Strategy specifically mentions tail damage as one of its key areas of focus. It lists reducing damage to pigs’ tails as a priority issues for which targets will be developed.

As stated, no one wants a reduction in tail docking – length or prevalence – at the expense of an increase in tail biting. However, there are increasingly widespread examples of where both intact tails and absence of biting problems can be achieved.

For example, approximately 30% of UK pigs are reared under the Freedom Food scheme on a range of commercial farms. The majority of producers in the scheme manage their pigs successfully with undocked tails, and even those who do dock must apply the RSPCA standards and leave the tails longer.

The challenge now is to understand what makes it possible on these units to achieve this, and to disseminate any lessons more widely in order to help everyone move towards the 20:20 strategy target of an overall reduction in tail damage.

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