Thick corn fields and rolling hills, folksy farmers, hay bale pyramids and mangers attended by contented cows, sheep and pigs. These are the images of the holy British countryside, the New Jerusalem, England’s green and pleasant land, images immortalised by countless novels and poems. Of course, it has not always appeared this way to everyone. Many have lamented the dwindling innocence and purity of our gentle Arcadia and wrote of England’s subdued garden landscape succumbing to violent oppression. None put better words to this sentiment than the proletarian poet John Clare:
By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill.
Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story proves that the farms of yesteryear, if such idylls ever existed, are dead and buried, replaced with a system of violence and callousness unrecognisable as any dewy-eyed notion of agriculture. Moreover, it only takes 33 minutes to do so. Narrated by the reliably charismatic and authentic Jerome Flynn, best known as Bronn from Game of Thrones, the movie sets about delineating the dire conditions animals endure under factory farming and the commercial interests which profit from this arrangement.
It is hard, when writing on the topic of animals and how we treat them, not to slip into zealous fury, detailing graphic descriptions of wounds and gore and sulphurous brimstone. Yet no honest person can or should flop into euphemism when detailing the scenes from Hogwood Farm. In the plainest prose, the condition of the pigs in the movie is unbearable, for the viewer but far more so for the creatures themselves. These animals have never gone outside and will never leave their barn. The one exception to this, the one vacation they will ever take, will be the ride to the slaughterhouse.
They have never felt the freshness of a breeze, never seen trees or flowers, swamps or groves or the rich, truffle laden earth that pigs so love to dig up and wallow in. They cannot move without rubbing each other; their faces are dark with blood and faeces; one lies dead, enormous and bloated with decay, swollen with grey varicose veins, bitten and torn at by other pigs. Ulceration and rot have blackened their way through pigs’ legs, straight down to the bone. There is no room and the pigs are savaging each other. Sows, squeezed into farrowing crates, are crushed by the metal bars, unable to turn over, and lie like filthy sacks next to puddles of placenta, twisted umbilical cords, and the emaciated figures of their dead children. In a later visit investigators call the police upon finding a disturbingly taciturn pig, which sits hopelessly in a corridor as the other pigs eat it alive.
Julia Gellatley, head of Viva!, the vegan campaigning charity who created the movie Hogwood, says the place is like hell. Can anyone disagree? Far from sentimental tosh, “hell” well encapsulates the conditions which confront these creatures; factory farmed pigs’ anguish often manifests in mental illnesses, leading to stereotypical behaviours like tail biting. The filmmakers very pointedly illustrate this by contrasting Hogwood Farm with images of rescued pigs at Dean Animal Sanctuary. A large sow runs around the grass with her piglets dashing past her heels. She leaps about, bounding like a spaniel, evidently relishing the space, the exercise, the wind. Pigs do not eat one another, gnaw each other’s tails, or erupt into ulcerous tumours when living with a bit of space and country air. They can be happy, and this chance is categorically denied and stolen from the thousands of creatures at Hogwood.
However, it is after the initial exposé of the living conditions in Hogwood Farm that the movie becomes indispensable, demonstrating the sickness at the very centre of the animal industry. Viva! confronts Tesco, who Hogwood Farm supplies, with the footage; Tesco replies that they can see no problem with it. Red Tractor inspectors investigate Hogwood and find nothing untoward with the operation. Channel 4’s Dispatches consults a veteran veterinarian Roger Blowie, and asks him to view the footage. He informs them that “To me it’s a normal commercial farm… to me no, definitely not a vision of hell.”
They are all right, in their own way. It would be comforting if the buck stopped with the dark triad of Hogwood, Tesco and Red Tractor, if they amounted to the complete demonology. Yet they said it themselves, there is nothing abnormal about Hogwood Farm. It is just “a normal commercial farm”. Yet, whilst this may provide comfort to those who profit from this industry, it should inspire alarm in the rest of us. Hogwood Farm is a microcosm, a snapshot of standard industry conditions and practices. There must be no further illusions on this point: when the captains of the animal industry describe such scenes as ‘normal’, we might take their word for it.
Red Tractor doesn’t object to these conditions because they are ‘normal’; Hobill, Hogwood’s owner, won’t reckon with the immense suffering of his pigs because his techniques are ‘normal’; Tesco won’t drop Hogwood because their practices are ‘normal’. There is nothing that dampens critical thinking or reflection more than that which is ‘normal’. It is deeply unfortunate that such norms are defined and perpetuated by the very people who profit from their existence. Tepid welfare outfits like Red Tractor see no evil in Hogwood because it is run by the farming industry; it is bought opposition. Tesco relies on Red Tractor because Baroness Lucy Neville-Rolfe, the chairwoman of Red Tractor, sits on Tesco’s board of directors. The general public, whose help Viva! was forced to enlist, were predictably appalled by images of Hogwood, which they found anything but ‘normal’. Only the perpetrators of animal suffering deem such conditions acceptable, like thieves opining on burglary. It took Tesco three years to sever connections with Hogwood Farm.
The documentary’s epilogue provides further insight into the endemic nature of brutality throughout the animal industry, showing broken dairy cows, “enriched” cages crowded and impoverished beyond belief, the writhing masses of a ‘free range’ chicken farm. It is indisputable that supermarket labels mislead the public, and that the ethically-minded consumer of animal products is perpetually being taken for a ride. All this drills in the point, steadily emerging in the consciences of many people, that the compassionate treatment of animals can only be achieved by ditching the animal exploitation paradigm altogether. Animals do not need to suffer torture, mutilation and death when we can meet all our nutritional needs with a balanced and delicious vegan diet. Movies such as this are necessary viewing for anyone with a heart for compassion so that ignorance to cruelty, often self-imposed, may no longer provide bliss. As such, my recommendation is not that you should watch Hogwood or similar documentaries, but that you are duty-bound to.
Ultimately, what Hogwood: A Modern Horror Story unveils is deeply tragic; that the myth of the rural idyll and the happy symbiosis of pig and farmer is a lie, that “England’s green and pleasant land” was nought but “dark satanic mills” all along. Near the start of the documentary we are told that Viva! was alerted to Hogwood Farm by local hunters, who suspected foul-play whilst shooting in nearby Hobill Woods. I was reminded of Walter de La Mare, who described the near mystical happiness of pigs in a forest:
The old Pig said to the little pigs,
“In the forest is truffles and mast,
Follow me then, all ye little pigs,
Follow me fast!”
The Charcoal-burner sat in the shade
With his chin on his thumb,
And saw the big Pig and the little pigs
He watched ‘neath a green and giant bough,
And the pigs in the ground
Made a wonderful grizzling and gruzzling
And greedy sound.
What investigators discovered was an eminently different picture. Instead of frolicking pigs they discovered a graveyard. There were no truffles or mast in the wood, no wonderful grizzling and gruzzling. Just a pyre of skulls crusted with leaves, and dull ear tags strewn over the floor.
By Matthew Chalmers