The virus and a fence

African swine fever, which is deadly for wild and domestic pigs, is out of control in Poland. That is why the federal states of Saxony, Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have drawn a fence along the eastern border to prevent wild boars from crossing the border.

Behind the first fence, a second one is currently being built, and between the two fences there should be a wild boar – free white zone-all to protect German domestic pigs and, above all, large pig farms. Is it possible to stop an animal disease spread by wild animals at a national border? And what do the enormous efforts say about our relationship with our domestic pigs and about the German pig farming system? That the discussion about animal welfare is obsolete for pigs?

Disease versus organic farming

When African swine fever (ASP) reached the German domestic pigs in July, this happened despite the fact that the official veterinarians in the threatened areas had cut the pigs off. Even in an organic farm in the district of Spree-Neisse, the two hundred pigs were denied the way out since September 2020, although this outlet is mandatory for organic pigs. Despite the "stallation", the ASP pathogen was detected in one of the pigs in July. That was the death sentence for all pigs, including the healthy ones. This is called "culling" when all animals on a farm are killed because of a disease. Language can sometimes be just as brutal as reality. In the second outbreak of ASP in domestic pigs, only two animals died, and in the third case only four, because they were micro-husbandry. Also these animals were kept in the stable, without spout.

Can it be concluded that the housing that the veterinary offices everywhere have when an animal disease is approaching does not protect at all? That the pure stable does not prevent anything? It could be so. What is certain is that the pure stable keeping is a torture for pigs who are used to outdoor life. However, the fight against African swine fever seems to be putting an end to all discussions about animal welfare and species-appropriate husbandry. And this despite the fact that the farms that want to keep their pigs outdoors have to fence them several times, even without disease, so that the domestic pigs can never come into contact with wild boars. But this is supposedly not enough when it comes to African swine fever. This can also be transmitted by scavengers – theoretically. And she could even fly.

"There is a risk, but in my opinion it is very low, "says Germany's top animal epidemiologist Prof. Franz J. Conraths, vice president of the Friedrich Löffler Institute FLI:" Nevertheless, we recommend that pigs be reared in the core areas and the endangered zones in order to counter this risk."The institute itself has found in a study that not only the scavengers among mammals, such as fox or raccoon dog, eat on boar carcasses, but also birds that can fly over any protective fence. Footage from wildlife cameras proves that crow birds leave the carcasses with tissue in their beaks. But how far do you fly with it? Do you drop the tissue somewhere? Can such a small tissue sample infect pigs? Is it therefore perhaps pointless to build protective fences against African swine fever – not only around free-roaming domestic pigs,but also along the border? Franz Conraths says: "If the second fence was drawn along the border at a distance of five hundred to a thousand meters from the existing fence and the zone in between was free of wild boar, then we would have an effective barrier against African swine fever from the East."The professor emphasizes that here he consciously chooses the subjunctive, because it is not easy to keep such a zone truly boar-free.

But if this were to succeed, it would only be a question of how we get the areas that are already contaminated ASP-free. And this is proving difficult right now.

Lock up as a solution

After the ASP outbreak in the organic farm in the district of Spree-Neiße, it was said that rodents had carried the disease into the stable, i.e. mice or rats. "I don't know about that, "says Franz Conraths:" When an outbreak like this happens and you don't know an official source, then the rumor mill boils. And that could be the case with this rodent hypothesis. What can be said is that in close proximity to this farm there have been finds of wild boar with ASP. The nearest one was about four hundred meters away."However, it is not clear how the disease actually reached the domestic pigs in the stable from there, despite all professional hygiene measures, including "pest management", by the way. The company is not to blame, says the epidemiologist, everything was done right there. And yet it caught him: "Annoying!"

However, it did not catch a farm that keeps its pigs in the open field, and this despite the obligation to stable in the endangered zone: the Hirschaue estate in Birkholz, about six kilometers east of the Spree. The father of the two current plant managers Michael and Henrik Staar had already had the plant certified by Bioland in 1992. Today, the brothers manage almost six hundred hectares, two hundred of which are used as game enclosures for dam and red deer. In addition, there is the own butcher and the farm shop. And then, since Michael Staar set up his own farm more than twenty years ago and brought it into the network, there are up to two hundred pigs in free range.

Initially, he bred German saddle pigs, a separate breed created in the GDR from Angler Sattelschwein and Schwäbisch Hällischer Schwein, which formerly accounted for ten percent of the pig population in the East. Today, the German saddle pig is one of the endangered old pet breeds on the Red List and the Hirschaue estate participates in the conservation breeding program. In addition, there was a separate breed, which the Hirschauer call "Märkisches Sattelschwein". These pigs originated from multiple crossbreeding of German saddle pigs and wild boars.

"These animals grow up in the open field and live outside all year round, "says Henrik Staar:" We can't suddenly lock them up now. They can't handle it!"Other free-range farmers who had to herd their pigs report their boredom and aggression, up to bloody injuries. Pigs are not really stable animals. Now, at the end of July, the farm received an "order order" from the district, with the request to stable the animals until 22 August. The Berlin lawyer Katrin Brockmann has filed an objection for the Hirschaue estate against both the special order order and the general order of the district to deal with the ASP. On August 9, the district issued a new general decree, against which a new objection must now be lodged. "It's a cat-and-mouse game," says Henrik Staar. Because it is not the first time that the farms of the estate have taken action against such dispositions. So far, all contradictions have been accepted. This may also be due to the fact that Gut Hirschaue's lawyer can assess what a housing would mean for the animals. Katrin Brockmann is not only a lawyer, but also an agricultural engineer. Anyway, the pigs are still outdoors.

And that with freedom is extremely relative. The fields where the pigs roam are triple fenced. Inside the fenced game gate is a two-meter high fence, which additionally extends half a meter into the earth. Recognized as a wolf-proof festival fence, it can not be undermined by wild boars. The third fence follows after three hundred meters of buffer zone and is also two meters high.

Animal welfare ade

"The animals were never really involved in all the arguments about the housing," says Henrik Staar. "Nobody seems to care how they would fare in the stable. They are not individuals with needs, but are treated as a thing."And one thing can be put away. Although there is no mention of this in the Swine Fever Regulation, which is the basis for the actions of veterinary offices in the areas at risk. Section 14a merely states: "Upon notification of the designation of the endangered district, animal owners in the endangered district shall (...) segregate the pigs in such a way that they cannot come into contact with wild boar."The word' housing ' does not appear at all in the Ordinance on Swine fever. This, too, is certainly a reason for the fact that the district of Oder-Spree has always had an understanding and accepted the objections of Attorney Brockmann against her own dispositions.

The brothers Michael and Henrik Staar are not concerned with fattening the animals in their pig farming. Fattening can hardly be called that, what happens on the fields of Gut Hirschaue; for this the pigs grow much too slowly, both the saddle pigs, but above all the wild boar crossings. "The pigs are part of our crop rotation," says Henrik Staar. This includes a five-year phase with clover grass in agriculture. This is first grazed by deer for four years. However, they are very picky when looking for food. In the end, only what the deer do not want to eat is left on the pastures. Now, in the fifth year, the pigs come to the areas and break them down. The pigs fertilize again, saving the plow. A nice concept that would come to naught with stable keeping. Especially since there is neither the stable, nor the straw, which would then be necessary for bedding. Because harvesting straw is prohibited in the ASP-endangered area, so that the disease is not entered into the farm.

And on?

What is the next step for African swine fever and pig farming? With ever new decrees and ever new contradictions? Or then with the end of free-range husbandry and thus the most species-appropriate husbandry that we can do to pigs?

When it comes to the Interessengemeinschaft der Schweinehalter IGS in Brandenburg and the farmers ' association there, the pigs disappear from the landscape. The two organizations do not miss an opportunity to attack free-range farming in the Hirschaue estate. I want the pigs in the barn so they don't get infected. Like the pigs that were in the barn and yet got infected. A little logical reasoning? Seems so. But only because it does not say what is really at stake: the economic interests of pig farmers, the entire pig system, not the animals. Oh, and about our beloved cheap meat, of course. Anyone who continues to buy schnitzel or neck steaks for five or six euros a kilo supports this system.

The other way

Meanwhile, a small farm in Wendland, Lower Saxony, has demonstrated that it is also possible to agree with official veterinarians. Kathrin Ollendorf and Holger Linde vom Hutewaldhof also breed an endangered old breed of pet: the Angler's saddle pig. The robust animals are particularly suitable for extensive outdoor husbandry. Also on the Hutewaldhof, the pigs live outdoors all year round. Only when the sows piglets, they temporarily come to a stable, which they leave after a few days with their offspring. Otherwise, the animals live in groups on the fields, where they can partly harvest their food themselves. To protect against rain and cold, there are small, insulated and straw-strewn huts. And in autumn, the pigs are allowed into a fenced, two-hectare forest to look for acorns, beeches, mushrooms and herbs.

Now the hamlet of Riskau near Dannenberg in Wendland is far from the Polish border and the fenced-in core zones of swine fever outbreaks in Germany, but the two from the Hutewaldhof have already set off some time ago to discuss with the responsible veterinary office what happens to their pigs in the event of a case. At the Hutewaldhof there are currently four sows registered in the Herdbuch der Angler-Sattelschweine, i.e. approved for breeding. The Society for the Conservation of Old and Endangered Pet Breeds lists the angler's saddle pigs as extremely endangered on the Red List and gives the entire stock with 96 female and 28 male animals (the overview data are from 2018). If four sows are missing because of African swine fever, this is already a serious incision in the gene pool. If several farms were affected, swine fever could lead to the extinction of the whole breed. And even the four breeding sows from Hutewaldhof could put the gene pool in danger, because they belong to the first of seven breeding lines, and this line A currently counts only six animals. If a breeding line breaks down, the genetic variance becomes too small for maintenance breeding.

Exception gene pool

So what to do so as not to endanger the breed of pigs and your own small farm? There are "§ 8 exceptions"in the Swine Fever Ordinance. It states: "In the event of an outbreak of swine fever or African swine fever in an investigation establishment, a zoo, a wildlife park or a similar establishment where pigs are kept for scientific purposes, for the conservation of species or for the conservation of rare breeds, the competent authority may authorise exemptions from Section 4 ( ... )."In § 4, again, what is to be done without exception is:" the killing and harmless disposal of all pigs of the suspected farm."After long, cooperative discussions with the veterinary office, some additional modifications, further safety measures and detailed evidence from the breeding association, agroecologist Kathrin Ollendorf now holds a versatile exemption certificate in her hands, which certifies her pigs to be a UTR, an "Irreplaceable animal genetic resource". However, only applies to breeding sows, not to their offspring.

The company had to laboriously work out this paper. Through additional fences and hygiene measures and above all through restrictive access for visitors. "We also like to show people our pigs," says Kathrin Ollendorf, " that's part of our concept."Hutewaldhof does not receive EU agricultural subsidies because the agroforestry system and the changing fodder crops for extensive pig farming do not fit into any EU regulation. The company is all the more dependent on its customers, who reach deeper into their pockets for the good meat and sausage products. A star chef was also already on the customer list, who has removed the famous Iberico, the acorn pigs from Spain, from the menu for the pork from Riskau. But customers who visit the farm to see the pigs do not fit the hygiene guidelines at all, which dictate that everyone who deals with the pigs should change shoes and clothes when entering the farm. Therefore, visits are only possible in exceptional cases and records must be kept of every non-company who enters the premises. Corona-experienced restaurant operators know this, agricultural businesses rather not.

The areas of the pigs were already secured with double fences and electric wire. Without this, outdoor pig farming is not approved in Germany. Now the remaining yard area had to be fenced off and the yard gate had to be locked, a rather disturbing measure in the country. "A big discussion was the prescribed Schadnager monitoring," says Kathrin Ollendorf. How to keep rats and mice away from free range? The regulation does not fit in with reality. The veterinarians then noticed this, because where the pigs roam freely, there is no mouse left voluntarily. When the pigs repopulate a field to look for their food there, after a short time every mouse nest is dug up and every mouse is eaten.

Another condition for UTR status is that the Hutewaldhof participates in an ASP early detection program. This means that twice a year the veterinarian comes and measures fever in a large number of pigs. At each visit, the veterinarian also checks all other conditions that the farm must meet. The veterinarian and his control work must be paid by the farm. The advantage that the Hutewaldhof has is a new status: ASP-free! In the event of a disease, the status as a swine fever – free farm has the advantage that the animals can then still be moved - "moved" means that in official German. If the veterinary office imposes the" stabling", then the animals must be driven into a stable, because there is none on site. But if at the same time there is a ban on driving the animals from the farm, the Hutewaldhöfer could only wait until all the pigs are killed because they are not "stabled". "I definitely don't want to experience that," says Kathrin Ollendorf.

Suffering for the pig system

So what now: build or lease a stable as a precaution? Although one is convinced that the sow must get out, and her piglets with her. The stable for the animals of the Hutewaldhof would have to be significantly oversized, because the animals do not know the life in the stable. And the feeling of being crammed leads to aggression not only in people. So a large and correspondingly expensive stable would have to be leased. "But we do not want that, "says Kathrin Ollendorf," because we are convinced of our way of keeping in the open and do not want to finance a second way of keeping. In the longer term, we cannot afford this either."

From the official risk assessment of the Friedrich-Löffler-Institut FLI, the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health, Kathrin Ollendorf deduces the actual reason for all the disease protection measures such as the obligation to farm. It states: "In a study that simulated an ASP entry in Danish domestic pig herds, direct costs of 12 million euros and losses from export bans of 349 million euros were calculated."In Denmark, in terms of the human population, even more pigs are kept than in Germany. The principle is the same: we import feed, for example soy from burnt rainforest, and export pork, for example to China. "Germany is already suffering from significant export losses after the previously exclusive entry of the ASP into the wild boar population," writes the FLI: "An entry into a domestic pig population would increase the economic losses even more. In addition, problems related to the acceptance of pigs ready for slaughter by slaughterhouses could be further exacerbated and lead to significant difficulties in ensuring animal welfare."(The risk assessment of the FLI is dated 19.04.21.)

Well then, the entry into domestic pig stocks has now happened. Which exacerbates the risk assessment, but only in financial terms. Once again, it is not about the animals, even indirectly about the disease. It's about money. For the time being, domestic pigs that are far enough away from the Polish border, from where the disease comes, can not care. But not the farms that are committed to species-appropriate animal husbandry. You can already take care of messing up the good life of your animals. Or not. "If we now lease the expensive stable, we will finance a housing system that we do not want, "says Kathrin Ollendorf," and that only in order to protect conventional pig farmers from economic losses."That is to say: If the pig farms, which turbo-fatten their hybrid pigs in cramped stalls, are afraid, above all financially afraid, of African swine fever, then it should be they who finance the spread of the disease to the farms that keep their animals in the open ground in a species-appropriate manner.

For the time being, we meat eaters can support the farms that keep the old breeds and let their pigs roam and wallow. This is much more expensive than the pork from the cheap counter-but it is pork that still deserves this name or again! And the animals had a good life.