Government chaos as ministers dither and cull of 120,000 pigs begins

As pig farmers began the UK’s first cull on record of healthy animals today, the government declined to intervene by clearing the way for the skilled foreign butchers needed to plug the gap.

Pig cull butcher shortage
Butcher shortage leads to pig cull. Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels (CC BY 2.0)

As the emergency slaughter of 120,000 pigs has started to become a reality today, the industry is in full-scale revolt and government seems in disarray.

The problem is that many of the butchers this country has been using were EU citizens who decided to return home.  Now there aren’t enough workers who are skilled enough to turn the pigs into pork.

As a result, while there is a huge glut of pigs and a strong domestic demand for pork, 120,000 pigs will be slaughtered, probably on farm, and then their bodies destroyed.  This will create a shortage of pork, so the domestic market will ironically have to import it from the EU.

Levelling up?

At the 11th hour, environment secretary George Eustice suggests the government ‘could’ ease visa restrictions to allow more EU butchers into the country.  But at the same time another unnamed cabinet minister was briefing Politico, with an unusual interpretation of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda: “We have to dig in.  If consumers have to pay more for pork then they have to pay more for pork. This is levelling up in action.”

There was no further explanation of how increasing food prices would represent ‘levelling up’.  Nor of how one cabinet minister can plead for lower pork prices, while another insists they should go up.

The government’s failure to act came to a head following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s now notorious live interview with Marr on Sunday.  Chief executive of the National Pig Association, Zoe Davies, tweeted: “This is absolutely disgusting.  You should be ashamed @BorisJohnson. This is your mess.  Time to fix it.”

Butcher shortage pig cull
The cull of healthy pigs has begun. Photo by Matt Barnard on Pexels (CC BY 2.0)

One industry reporter was incandescent

Meanwhile, under the headline ‘Industry fury as arrogant Prime Minister throws crisis-torn pig industry under a bus’, trade magazine Pig World carried an apoplectic report by journalist Alistair Driver on the Johnson interviewAccording to the magazine:

Rather than treat the issue with the gravity a messy mass cull of pigs and the decline of an entire industry deserved, Mr Johnson saw it as an opportunity for a light-hearted spar with Mr Marr and to reassert his Brexit ideals, heaping all the blame on the industry. 

Having covered farming politics for more than 20 years, I have never seen such an appalling, ill-judged and ill-informed interview. It seems astonishing that it came from a man deemed worthy by some of holding the role of Prime Minister.

“In all my years of political viewing I have never heard a PM be so poorly briefed that was an embarrassment. He just threw the pig industry under a bus,” wrote one trusted and veteran pig farmer via email.

Mr Johnson’s comments clearly indicate he has no intention of facilitating new short-term temporary visas for butchers to ease the backlog – even though his reference to ‘uncontrolled immigration’ is completely at odds with the short-term measures the meat sector is seeking.

But even more worrying is the rhetoric, matched by the deafening silence from Defra as the industry spirals into crisis – the Government, from the top down, seems unaware that there is even a crisis or, more worryingly if it is aware, prepared to let animals and the industry suffer, rather than being seen to compromise on its misguided Brexit ideals.

Financial catastrophe of slaughter

Behind the rhetoric however, real hardship and tragedy stalk farmers who have spent their lives in the pig industry, and for whom the present chaos represents financial catastrophe.

Four weeks ago East Anglia Bylines reported on pig farmer Simon Watchorn, who had decided to leave the industry as financially he could not continue.

Under the headline ‘Pig farmer set to quit and blames Brexit for butcher shortage’ the East Anglian Daily Times today also interviewed Mr Watchorn:

‘There are a lot of people going out of business, I for one am packing up.  I’ve been doing it for 27 years, this is probably the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

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