Expert opinion on metal chains and other indestructible objects as proper enrichment for intensively-farmed pigs.

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EC Directive 2001/93 requires that all pigs have access to proper investigation and manipulation materials. Intensively farmed pigs in Europe are frequently provided with a short metal chain with or without an indestructible object attached to the chain. To date authorities are regarding this as proper enrichment, perhaps with (in)direct reference to the RICHPIG model as a justification. However, it has become increasingly clear that the chains do not provide proper enrichment, and that adding an indestructible object to the end of the chain may even reduce rather than improve pig welfare. To test this hypothesis an expert survey was conducted containing 26 more or less compound questions. On a scale from 0 to 10 experts specified their level of agreement with the hypothesis, the prevalence and welfare scores of nine indestructible enrichment materials. In total 36 experts, mostly pig-welfare scientists, responded (response rate: 39%). Indestructible objects are less prevalent in countries that provide straw (like Sweden and the UK) and outside the EU (US). They are more prevalent in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Finland, while the prevalence seems to be low in Spain. Balls, wood and pipes were provided most frequently: hard wood especially in the UK (as specified in farm assurance); indestructible balls and pipes in Germany and the Netherlands. The experts’ score for agreement with the hypothesis was only 4.6 on average (scale 0-10; n = 25). Enrichment materials, ranked from high to low welfare score, were grouped in 5 significance levels as indicated by different superscripts based on Wilcoxon signed rank tests: Branched chains (5.1a), Chain on the floor (4.4b), Hard wood (3.7bc), Pipe (3.5c), Bare chain (3.3c), Short chain (3.1d), Small ball (2.8d), Big ball (2.5d), and Chain hanging too high (1.3e). Branched chains scored significantly better than all other indestructible materials and its welfare score (5.1 on average) was close to the pre-defined level of acceptability (5.5 on a scale from 0, worst, to 10, best). The welfare benefits of adding balls, pipes or hard wood to the metal chain were marginal, and well below what the experts considered acceptable enrichment. The branched-chains design, by contrast, appears to be the most viable alternative. It involves providing a longer chain, i.e. with the free end reaching to floor level, adding ‘branches’, i.e. several short chains ending at the nose height of the pigs, and providing more chains per pen (i.e. 1 branched chain per 5 pigs). Branched chains should be implemented widely and in the short term as a first step towards, and benchmark for, providing proper enrichment to intensively-farmed pigs.

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