SURPRISE DECLINE in the English pig herd has cut breeding pig numbers by almost 6% to 457,000, according to the latest DEFRA census.

It undermines the findings of the mid term June 2004 census which indicated a recovery in numbers, especially with regard to replacement gilts.

By the Dec survey, a downward trend had set in, with a sharp overall drop of 17.2% in the number of in pig gilts on farms.

One cause for optimism is that the number of maiden gilts of 50kg and over has risen by 14.9%, but it remains to be seen if this will be carried through to June.

The drop in the size of the national herd will put further pressure on finished pig numbers and the slaughtering sector.

UK weekly slaughter numbers published by the Meat and Livestock Commission are now estimated at 172,000 head compared with 240,000 four years ago.

Unless there is a reversal in this 25 year downward trend, more abattoir closures and mergers can be expected, cutting competition in the market as a whole.

In the absence of home-produced product, rising pigmeat consumption in the UK will be met by further imports, which already account for almost 70% of the market.

 DEFRA census results

   Dec 2003   Dec 2004   % Change
 Total pigs   3916 3862   -1.4
 Sows in pig  277 268   -3.2
 Gilts in pig  61 51   -17.2
 Other sows  82 66   -18.8
 Breeding herd total  419 384   -8.3
 Boars used for service   17 16   -6.9
 Gilts over 50kg   49 57   14.9
 Total breeding pigs 486 457   -5.9