Pigs have a definite role to play on an ecological farm. There are always surpluses of milk or whey (from cheese making), sometimes broken eggs and loads and loads of vegetable matter (excess crops or weeds). When the weather is reasonable they work outside (they are about the only organic means of cultivation that gets rid of "bracken"). But there is little financial incentive in expanding the numbers too much.
We keep two sows that are allowed to go visit a boar occasionally (3 litters per year, in total, is about as much as we can handle) because this is necessary to keep them happy and healthy. (When they come in season and are not allowed to go to a male pig, they show their unhappiness by ripping through reinforced concrete.)
This still means that we have at least 20-25 porkers per year surplus to requirements. And when everything is said, they don't have such a bad life. Plenty of outdoor sports, and they stay with mum for at least 14 weeks (the boys) and the girls a good bit longer (by this time they weigh around 50 kilos each and are too much for the sow to accomodate). They are not mutilated (tail docking or castration) and they are treated almost like members of the family.
Unfortunately keeping them all is not possible. We would have an exponential population explosion, in just a few years this would be a barren desert with standing room for pigs only. And so most of them are killed. When their time has come we call the one we want, feed him something nice out of our hand and pull the trigger of the .22 with the other hand. There is no suffering -- death is instantanious.
Of course it is false of me. They trust me and I kill them. And I don't find it easy to do. I definitely don't enjoy this part of the job. But what is the alternative? Not keeping pigs at all? That would reduce the amount of porcine happiness in this world because our pigs really are a happy bunch individually and collectively, except for this fraction of a second when the bullet strikes. Moreover it would be very difficult to do the work we do and survive the climate here as vegetarians. When my time comes I really would like to contribute to the fertility of this farm. Life is a cycle and it is good that way.
Concerning the present discussion on sanet about this I think that one of the problems is again that words carry a different meaning for different people. Sustainable for me means ecologically sustainable, for other people sustainable has an almost exclusively monetary meaning. Sometimes these two aspects even overlap. Confusing to say the least.
I know that intensive rearing of meat animals for financial gain (almost impossible anyway under the present conditions) leads to a very restricted, unworthy life for a lot of these animals. Under no condition am I prepared to lower myself to that and to look upon animals as commodities. Still, they do play an irreplaceble ecological role on our farm. Without them a lot of wild animals would also disappear. And humane contact with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens and the rest enriches our lives no end. (They are only human after all and can teach us a lot.) At the same time I think we have the duty to make sure that things don't get out of hand. Mankind has eliminated all the big predators and if we don't take over that role, things go badly wrong.
About twelve years ago there were so many foxes in this part of the world that there was no chance of survival for any other wild creature. They ate also 80% of all our lambs, killed adult sheep, and almost wiped out all our ducks and chickens. I was forced to take matters in hand and I started hunting foxes on our own land. Over 8 or 9 years I killed over six hundred foxes on our 65 acres. Other wildlife made a comeback and the foxes that remained lost their mangy look and became healthy again. These last 3 years or so things seemed more or less in balance, and I gave up foxhunting except for the ones that did damage to my farm animals. (Only shot about 6 so far this year.) Since June this year the mange is back in the foxes and now there is not a pheasant or a snipe in sight.
Any idea what this means? To bring matters right I will have to go out again in all weather and in the middle of the night and reduce the fox population. I hate the thought of it. For me this is not a sport. But have wild birds, hedgehogs and all the rest not the right of some human protection? If I don't help them now they will all be eaten, and I will once again lose a lot of lambs come spring. This is what ecological sustainability is about.
What about the financial aspects? These are mostly negative. I reckon it costs me on average 4 hours to kill one fox and between 15 pence and £1 depending on whether I use a rifle or a snare (or both). Monetary value of the dead fox is nil. On the other hand is the fact that if I lose even only 10% of the lambs to the foxes, our whole sheep enterprise will make a loss. Anything more than that, or if ewes are killed, is a near disaster financially. Sustainable in a financial sense is nowhere in the cards.
Would things be better if we were vegetarians and only grew plants? I planted over 200 seedling fruit trees in the spring this year (estimated value about £400), fenced them in against rabbits and hares and lost every single one of them to these same rabbits and hares that got through and under the fence. This is not a unique experience in West Cork. Somebody we know planted 7000 hardwoods 3 years ago. After one year there were exactly 3 (three) left. And these were eaten in the second year.
Other vegetables any better? You should see our carrots. One day there are nice long rows of carrots full of juicy green leaves (in between rows of other crops). Almost overnight all the green disappears. (Hares.) Three weeks later the rows begin to look green again. As soon as the leaves are a foot long they all disappear almost overnight. And so on until we put hare on the menu. One year I had to replant my peas five times because the seeds kept getting eaten by mice. Finally they came up more than a month late, to be decimated by rabbits shortly after. All this as if the often foul weather is not bad enough for farming.