The latest figures were 25% below the 317,000 head recorded in 2020 which is “significant” for production

The female pig breeding herd fell by 20% to 237,000 in December 2022 compared with 295,000 in 2021, following two years of heavy financial losses across the sector.

The latest figures were 25% below the 317,000 head recorded in 2020, said the National Pig Association.

The overall English pig herd fell 9.2% year on year to 3.7 million, including a 7.9% reduction in the number of fattening pigs, the NPA added.

The December breeding herd figures follow June 2022 census data showing an 18% year-on-year decline in production levels. Producers have endured a torrid two years, with backlogs on farms reaching over 200,000 pigs at the worst point of a crisis caused by a flood of supply in Europe and a post-Brexit shortage of butchers.

The implications of such a fall in production were “likely to be significant” for British production, warned the NPA, especially when the impact of lower slaughter weights was also taken into consideration.

“These figures are shocking, confirming a scale and pace of contraction that we have not seen before in this industry,” said NPA CEO Lizzie Wilson. “But, at the same time, they are not surprising, given the depth and length of the crisis that has engulfed the sector.”

She added that, “for many producers, sadly, there has just been no way through it”, with many leaving the sector.

The December 2022 figure represents a return to typical pig numbers seen from 2017 to 2020, after the backlog-inflated peak of December 2021.

“These figures should send a message to the rest of the supply chain about what happens when one part of it fails to receive a fair price over a prolonged period,” said Wilson, pointing to the potential shortage of pigs, something also being felt in other European countries.

It follows calls last month from the NPA for wider reform to the pig sector, after UK pig producers lost an estimated £750m during the two-year backlog crisis that rocked the sector.

The industry body called for contractual legislation, similar to what is planned for the dairy sector, and what egg producers are also demanding, in a bid to give pig producers greater rights when dealing with buyers.

In February, farming minister Mark Spencer promised that the Defra review into the pig supply chain, kicked off in July 2022, would be published “very soon”.

“We continue to call on the government to push through with its review of the pork supply chain, so we can introduce reforms that will ensure a fairer, more sustainable supply chain for all,” added Wilson.