Inside the UK Farming Industry: How Are Animals Kept And Killed In Britain?
A factory farmed pig in the UK pressing their head against some metal bars What does that "high welfare" label really mean? - Media Credit: Farlap / Alamy Stock Photo

Inside The UK Farming Industry: How Are Animals Kept And Killed In Britain?

The UK claims it has “world-leading” animal welfare - but what does that actually mean? We take a deep dive into the industry, including outdoor and factory farms

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11 Minutes Read

Despite the fact that vegan, vegetarian, and flexitarian diets are soaring in popularity, meat is still big business in the UK. It is thought that around 86 percent of the population eat animal flesh, and this demand doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.

There is, however, a growing understanding of the ethical costs of animal agriculture. Most of the public are at least partly aware that meat production isn’t in any way pleasant, but many console themselves by telling themselves that the UK has excellent welfare standards. 

This sentiment was echoed by government officials in 2021, who said Britain has “world-leading” standards of welfare. Many adverts on TV also depict smiling farmers with seemingly well-cared-for animals in large fields. But is what we understand about our farming system true?

An aerial view of a UK turkey factory farm
Adobe Stock Factory farming is growing in the UK

The rise of UK factory farming

Of the 1.2 billion land animals killed for food each year in the country, around 85 percent are raised on factory farms – and this number is growing.

In the summer of 2022, it was reported that there has been an influx of US-style so-called “mega farms” in the UK. These farms can hold hundreds of thousands – in some cases over a million – animals at a time. 

The report found that there are at least 1,099 of these farms dotted around the country, but it is thought that there are now considerably more. 

What happens to pigs on UK factory farms?

It is thought that around two thirds of pigs in the UK are factory farmed. 

Female pigs, also known as sows, will generally be forcibly impregnated twice a year via artificial insemination. 

About a week before they give birth, they will be put in “farrowing crates.” These are metal cages that offer her no room to turn around, and barely any room to move at all. 

When her piglets are born, they will suckle from a small area next to the crate known as “the creep.” She will not be able to access her children from the cage. 

Soon after birth, piglets will be subjected to mutilations like tail docking and teeth clipping. These are to ensure the animals don’t injure each other out of distress, and they are generally done without anaesthetic. 

A pig in a farrowing crate with her piglets beside her on a UK factory farm
Farlap / Alamy Stock Photo Sows are kept in farrowing crates for around six weeks after giving birth

The piglets will be weaned at around four weeks. After being taken from their mothers, they will be put in “fattening pens.” These are concrete or metal enclosures with slatted floors for waste. 

Farmers will often kill sick piglets with a process called “thumping”, which entails picking them up by their back legs and bashing their heads against the wall or floor. According to the National Pig Association, this is an “effective and appropriate way of humanely killing a piglet.”

When they are five or six months old, they will either be sent to the slaughterhouse or used as a breeding sow. If they are selected for breeding, they will give birth twice a year before being killed when they are around five years old. 

What happens to chickens on UK factory farms?

At least 95 percent of broiler chickens (those raised for meat) killed each year come from factory farms. 

They will generally be kept in barns with thousands of other birds, and will each be afforded an area of space no bigger than an A4 sheet of paper. 

The chickens we eat today have been selectively bred to grow unnaturally quickly to maximize profit. They are ready to be slaughtered at just 35 days old, meaning they are highly cost-effective for the industry. These birds have been dubbed “frankenchickens”, and they often suffer from mobility, heart, and respiratory problems. If a human baby grew as fast as they did, the baby would be the size of an adult tiger at eight weeks old. 

Oversized "frankenchickens" on a UK factory farm
Adobe Stock Chickens have been selectively bred to go significantly faster than they naturally would

As a result of the health problems brought on by their size, and the fact they often cannot move to access food and water, many chickens die before being selected for slaughter. 

What happens to cows on UK factory farms?

Factory farming has traditionally been associated with pigs and chickens, but a rapidly growing number of cows are now raised in intensive conditions. 

Back in 2018, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism published a report claiming that thousands of cattle were now being raised in US-style “feedlot” farms. Animals on these farms have no – or very little – access to pasture. 

Some of these farms hold around 3,000 animals at a time, and they are often kept in barren pens. It is estimated that around 20 percent of beef and dairy now comes from cows on these farms, but the precise number of them isn’t clear. 

“In contrast to large intensive pig and poultry farms, industrial scale beef units do not require a government permit in order to operate, and there are no official records on how many are in operation,” the report states. 

Free-range and ‘outdoor’ farming in the UK

Many meat-eaters may tell themselves that they don’t contribute to animal suffering because they only buy “free-range” meat. Numerous investigations have shown, however, that this label is little more than a marketing tactic. 

What happens to chickens on free-range farms?

It’s true that “free-range” chickens do have some daytime access to the outside for around half their lives. They do, however, mostly live in cramped barns with thousands of other birds. This “access” can just mean a door in the barn that they may never find their way to. Many “free-range” chickens will, therefore, never actually make it outside. 

What happens to pigs in “outdoor” farms?

Many consumers will also buy “outdoor-bred” or “outdoor-reared” pig meat. 

To be sold as outdoor bred, the pigs just have to have been born outside. They will generally be brought inside after being weaned when they are four weeks old. 

In outdoor-reared farming systems, sows will be kept in huts with outdoor access rather than farrowing crates. These are often barren, however, and offer the sow very little enrichment. 

A former Red Tractor CEO previously said that the advantages of outdoor-bred pork are that “people are prepared to pay more money for it because they think it’s better welfare.”

What happens to cows on beef farms?

The majority of beef and dairy cows aren’t raised on factory farms, but that doesn’t mean they fare much better. 

Beef cows will often be killed when they are between the ages of 12 and 24 months. “Suckler herds” refers to those raised on pasture, but these are on the decline in the UK. 

Farmed cows in a field in the UK
Adobe Stock Many UK cows are raised on pasture, but that doesn’t guarantee a high quality of life

Calves raised in suckler herds will be forcefully weaned at around two or three months. In the natural world, male calves would suckle for up to 12 months, and female calves would stay with their mothers for life. Some farmers will separate mothers and babies with fences, while others will put “nose flaps” on the calves to prevent them from suckling. Once the calf is weaned, they will be returned to the herd. 

Calves will be separated again at around five months, however, and sent to fattening units. Due to the strong bond between mother and baby, this separation causes stress to both parties. 

These cows can spend most of their lives on pasture, but they are often subjected to extreme weather conditions. This means that they may suffer from heat stress or be forced to live in wet and muddy fields without shelter or escape. 

What happens to cows on dairy farms?

Cows used in the dairy industry are forcibly impregnated every year. Each time they give birth, they will suffer the trauma of having their babies taken from them. Mother cows have been known to bellow and cry out for days after losing their calf. 

Dairy cows have been selectively bred to produce around 2.5 times more milk than they naturally would, which takes a huge toll on their bodies. As a result, they often suffer from a painful udder inflammation called mastitis. 

When their bodies are worn out (usually after around five years), they will be sent to the slaughterhouse.

How are lambs and sheep farmed in the UK?

The vast majority (around 99 percent) of sheep aren’t raised on factory farms, but that doesn’t mean they have a good life. 

Soon after birth, lambs will be subjected to mutilations like tail docking and castration, often with no pain relief. Tail docking is the act of removing some of their tail with a hot iron, tight rubber ring, or knife. This procedure is done to reduce the risk of “fly strike,” which is when flies lay eggs in their rear ends.

They are castrated with a tight rubber ring, clamp, or surgery. It is thought that castrating lambs improves the taste of the meat. It also makes them more docile and easier to handle. 

Lambs would naturally suckle from their mothers for up to six months after being born, but farmers will forcibly wean them when they are around eight weeks old. 

A sheep grazing with her two lambs in a field in the UK
Adobe Stock Due to selective breeding, sheep raised for wool don’t shed naturally

Sheep farmed for their wool will be shorn at least once a year. While shearing is often portrayed as a wholesome and gentle process, these animals generally experience significant pain and fear while it’s being done. 

Sheep are easily frightened and don’t like being handled, meaning they will be forcibly restrained. In the UK, there is also no legal requirement for shearers to be trained. Sheep will often sustain injuries while being sheared for their wool. 

While farmers will have you believe that sheep farmers are doing the sheep a favor by relieving them of their wool, this is only necessary because they have been selectively bred to produce considerably more than they should. In the natural world, their wool would shed of its own accord. 

How are farm animals killed in the UK?

Whatever farm or situation they’re reared in, pretty much all farmed animals will end up in the same slaughterhouses. Methods of killing in the UK are horrific, and most people are completely unaware of the pain and fear their “food” experienced when they died. 

Chickens

In the UK, the majority (around 70 percent) of broiler chickens are gassed to death. This method sees them exposed to a combination of gasses like carbon dioxide, argon, and nitrogen. Chickens killed in this way will suffocate to death, and will often gasp and flap their wings in panic. 

Many of the remaining chickens will be shackled upside down and stunned with an electrical water bath before having their throats cut. Due to the speed in which this process is carried out, and the fact that they will often struggle to escape and miss the bath, they will often still be conscious when they bleed out. 

Chickens may even still be alive when plunged into the scalding tanks that de-feather them, meaning they drown in very hot water. 

Pigs

Around 86 percent of UK pigs are gassed to death. When they arrive at the slaughterhouse, about three pigs at a time will be put on a metal gondola and lowered into a chamber containing a 70-90 percent concentration of carbon dioxide. This forms an acid when it touches wet surfaces like eyes and lungs, and pigs will thrash around in pain for up to 60 seconds before losing consciousness. 

The remaining pigs will be stunned and have their throats cut. Due to the fact that their skull is very thick, it is difficult to stun pigs. This means that they, like chickens, will often still be alive when having their throats cut or plunged into scalding tanks. 

Cows

Around 80 percent of cows are killed by having a captive bolt shot into their heads and having their throats cut. A previous EU study found that around 12 percent of cattle are shot more than once, and 14 percent shot inaccurately. This means that they, too, may also be conscious when they bleed out. 

Lambs

Lambs will generally be killed at around seven months old, though they can be as young as 10 weeks. 

When they arrive at the slaughterhouse, they’ll be shackled upside down, stunned, and have their throats cut.

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The Author

Polly Foreman

Polly is the Deputy Editor of Plant Based News. She has been vegan since 2014, and has written extensively on veganism, animal rights, and the environment.

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