Pigs called in to put the record straight

20th November 1998 at 00:00
Miranda Shufflebotham has a mission to tell the story of meat. Barry Hugill reports

IT COULD have been tricky, but Miranda Shufflebotham took it in her stride. One little girl wanted to know how a daddy pig could have a piglet. Cathy, five, a pupil at Willaston primary school, Crewe, is a little confused. Mrs Shufflebotham is a pig farmer but as much at home in the classroom as in the farrowing shed.

With ease she explained that "Ted", the father in question, had a part to play but most of the work had to be done by mummy pig who took charge of Ted's "seed" and turned it into a baby. There then followed a discussion on the difference between breasts and udders.

As sex education for very young children it was first rate, but it was not the reason Mrs Shufflebotham was there. She is a member of Ladies in Pigs, an organisation of female breeders and finishers (the people who fatten the pigs for market) which is fighting a desperate battle to prevent the death of British pig farming.

Setting up her display in Willaston's main hall Mrs Shufflebotham related just how bad the situation is. "We've been through bad times before, but in 34 years I have never experienced anything like this. We are losing money hand over fist, have had to sack staff and I just don't know what we are going to do next. Last year we had 400 sows, this year we have cut back to 200, Some farmers have slaughtered piglets at birth because they can't afford to keep them alive - they lose money on every pig they sell."

The reasons for the crisis are complex - over-production in America and Europe, the collapse of the export market to the Far East and tougher animal welfare legislation in the UK than in competitor countries. And, even worse, the perfidious behaviour of supermarkets which market Dutch, French, Danish and Swedish pig meat as "packaged in Britain".

"The claim is true but in the eyes of Ladies in Pigs it is a con trick. The pig ladies are convinced many consumers chew foreign pork convinced the pig led a short, but merry life on a British farm.

Frances Slade, a friend of Mrs Shufflebotham and the founder of the group, sums up the situation in one sentence: "In 1940 my mother got Pounds 10 for a weaner - the same amount we are getting now."

It is a sad tale and comparisons are made by the pig farmers with that other industry based on muck and toil, strangled by foreign competition and Government indifference. It's a decade since the papers were full of the death of King Coal but LIPS members point out that at least stories appeared. So far there has been scant reporting of the pig crisis.

None of which explains why Mrs Shufflebotham spent last Friday afternoon in the company of 29 five and six year-olds. She said: "The vegetarian society has tried to blacken our names, telling the children we do terrible things to the pigs. It's not true but it's difficult to get our point across. I go into schools to explain exactly what we do."

She lays no blame on the teachers, but some of her colleagues do.

Rita Leonard, a breeder from the North, is emphatic: "We are carnivores but all these teachers are telling them they can live on nuts and pulses, LIPS is going into schools to tell them eating meat is not evil."

Except that Mrs Shufflebotham is doing no such thing. She made no attempt to "sell" pupils the desirability of eating pork, nor did she broach vegetarianism. She taught them about sex, feeding and rearing habits and did not flinch from telling the full story. The children were treated to pretty slides of piglets, sweet pictures of newly-born sucklings - and a description of the container used to transport them to the slaughterhouse.

The children sat quietly through 30 minutes, which is pretty good going given their ages. There were endless questions, mostly about food and reproduction. At the end of the session they were given homework for the weekend. The pupils who create the best pictures andor written description of a piglet's life, can look forward to a visit to Mrs Shufflebotham's farm.

The children learnt a lot, but so did the adults listening. Boars have names, but sows do not because there are too many of them. And daddy pigs are called Ted, Bill, or Tom because "most farm staff can't spell longer names".

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