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Pigs pile up as Brexit and COVID leave UK farms with butcher shortfall

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By Josephine Joly  & Luke Hanrahan
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Pigs on a farm in Gloucestershire
Pigs on a farm in Gloucestershire   -   Copyright  Credit: Luke Hanrahan / Euronews
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The UK pig industry has welcomed a move by the British government to ease the shortage of workers that has brought a backlog of animals on UK farms.

On Thursday (October 14) the government said up to 800 more foreign butchers would be allowed to apply for temporary visas to work in the UK for six months, along with other measures.

A massive shortage of abattoir butchers has lead to a backlog of pigs on UK farms.

Before Thursday's announcement, pig farmer Sophie Hope told Euronews the industry was on the brink of disaster unless the British government acted soon.

With EU workers quitting the UK because of Brexit and the COVID pandemic, the consequent labour shortage includes a dearth of butchers in processing plants.

It has led to a backlog of pigs and, with space running out, some farmers have had to cull the animals instead of selling them for their meat.

"It's been a struggle, not going to lie – the cause of a few sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days," said Sophie, the owner of AA Farms in Gloucestershire. "There are so many pigs backed up on the farm and there's nowhere else to put them."

She said she would like to see the government relaxing visas restrictions for European workers with the skills to solve the problem, or pig farmers would be forced to incinerate thousands of animals.

"The biggest problem is right here right now, it's actually been building for several months already and we're at a critical phase now. We need to get butchers into processing plants in order to get through that backlog of pigs," Hope stressed.

According to the National Pig Association (NPA), around 80% of skilled abattoir butchers are from Europe.

"We are so very relieved that the Government has finally released some measures aimed at reducing the significant pig backlog on farms," said NPA chief executive Zoe Davies.

"We are working with the processors to understand the impact of these new measures and to determine exactly what will happen now, and how quickly, so that we can give pig farmers some hope and stem the flow of healthy pigs currently having to be culled on farms."

The shortage of foreign workers has also impacted the other half of Sophie's business, the production of poultry.

Her hens lay fertilised eggs for farmers who grow chicken for meat, but the supply chain seize up has meant she has had to throw hundreds of thousands of eggs away.

"I employ 20 people here, they work really really hard, day in day out. Early mornings and they work hard to make these birds happy and produce lots of eggs – and collecting them all. Ending up seeing these eggs thrown in the bin is so demoralising for us all," Sophie said.

Part of the reason the pigs and poultry sectors have been the worst affected by the shortage of EU migrant workers is because these animals grow quicker.

Beef and lamb farmers also fear that further down the line they will also begin to struggle as a result of the EU worker shortage.

The government did not mention Brexit in its announcement, instead attributing the problems faced by the pig industry to "the COVID-19 pandemic and the temporary suspension of approval to export to China for some UK pork establishments".

It stressed that temporary visas are not a long term solution and said businesses should make "long term investments in the UK domestic workforce to build a high-wage, high-skill economy, instead of relying on overseas labour".