The government is embroiled in a row with farmers over the use of farrowing crates, as pig keepers say plans to ban them will see piglets crushed.
These cages restrict the movement of the mother, so she does not roll over and crush the piglets feeding from her.
However, their use is controversial and banned in countries including Norway and Sweden, and The Telegraph understands the government is drawing up plans to ban them.
Animal Welfare Minister Lord Goldsmith said: “Pigs are intelligent, sensitive animals and although there are already strict laws in place to protect their welfare, we can and should go further. As we leave the EU we have the opportunity to build on our world-leading welfare standards, and as part of this we are looking at the evidence around the use of these crates”.
Farmers argue that piglets are at risk of being crushed to death if the crates are banned, and that alternatives need to be found before any legislation is passed.
The National Pig Association told The Telegraph that piglet mortality rates increase without the use of crates, and that sows are only in them for a maximum of five weeks.
A spokesperson added: "NPA would strongly oppose any attempts to unilaterally ban the use of farrowing crates as they serve an important purpose in protecting piglet welfare and stockperson safety.
Clearly for the industry, a ban would be disastrous as we are likely to see half of the indoor sow herd disappear as people are forced out of business – all we would do in that case is export British pig production to countries that still use farrowing crates – hardly a positive achievement.
"What we would like to see is Government and the retail supply chain working in partnership with the pig industry to support a move to alternative farrowing systems for those that are able and better promotion of the fact that we already have 40 per cent of our sow herd permanently free farrowing which is far better than any other country with comparable production."
Compassion In World Farming, an animal welfare organisation, claim "life is not worth living" for sows stuck in these crates. They say: "Farrowing crates severely restrict the sow’s movement and frustrate her strong motivation to build a nest before giving birth. They prevent the sow from being able to get away from her piglets, for example if they bite her teats."