The ethical vegan Jordi Casamitjana reviews the 2020 documentary “Hogwood: a modern horror story” which is now available to watch on Netflix
I have seen it many times.
I have seen suffering, despair, madness, pain, and death many times. Over the years, I have watched many videos and documentaries about the cruelty of animal exploitation, but every now and then there is a new one that reminds me of how I felt when I first watched Earthlings, the iconic 2005 documentary that made many people vegan overnight.
It doesn’t matter which country are we talking about, which animal or which farm, the horrors of factory farming are universal, and the more you witness them, the more desensitised you become about them. Gradually, you don’t feel the same strong paralysing emotions and you get used to the horrible images. This is useful if you are an animal protection undercover investigator, as I have been, but it also builds up a lot of consuming guilt, which is why I never recommend this risky line of work to anyone — even if someone has to do it.
One of the recent documentaries that took me back to those times when I was a junior vegan, more sensitive to the imagery, was premiered in 2020 by the UK vegan organisation Viva! (run by the experienced vegan campaigner Juliet Gellatley) which does a lot of undercover investigator work on UK farms. It is called “Hogwood: a modern horror story,” and as it is now available on the popular streaming network Netflix, I thought I would watch it again and write a review — in the hope this encourages more people to watch it.
A Horror Farm
I am writing this around Halloween, so I see the word “horror” paraded all over the place as if it is just a genre of filmmaking or a theme of costume parties and social gatherings. But horror exists in real life, and you can see it in Hogwood, a pig farm in Oxhill, Warwickshire, England, where around 15,000 pigs are confined in such hellish conditions that make horror films look parochial.
Viva investigators decided to target this farm when they got information about how bad it was. It investigated it four times from 2017 to 2019, and this documentary shows what they found. However, it is not simply a collection of footage obtained during the investigations. It’s an exposé of corruption. It is not a story of a horrible farm, but of a tenacious campaign. A campaign with very specific goals — that were achieved in the end. A campaign to expose how the Red Tractor scheme that supposedly accredits the farms with the best animal welfare is a con, and a campaign to expose how big supermarkets — in particular Tesco — and food producers — such as Cranswick plc —are complicit in the cruelty inflicted on factory farms such as Hogwood. At the time of the investigations, Hogwood was accredited by the Red Tractor and was supplying pig flesh to Tesco Cranswick plc, but this situation did not change for several years after the first investigation was made public — a true scandal.
In an ideal world, when a farm has been caught causing much more suffering to animals than the average farm causes, this should lead to the loss of accreditation as a “good animal welfare farm”, and big retailers should consequently ditch this farm and replace it with another yet to be caught. But sometimes this does not happen straight away, prompting a pressure campaign. This is what this documentary is about. An exposé of a factory farm, a lack of appropriate response from the companies that should react to it, a pressure campaign, and the final victory when such companies ditch the farm.
The story is presented by the vegan actor Jerome Flynn (recently known for his role as Bronn in the TV series Game of Thrones). He begins setting the scene of the first undercover investigation undertaken on the farm in 2017. We hear one of the investigators saying how he felt when he entered the premises:
“The first thing I noticed on hot would farm when I entered was the stench of infection more than excretion, and you can smell the injuries…You could sense the frustration, and boredom, and monotonous physical pain. There were what seemed to be half a dozen pigs that had been left outside a corridor.”
This is a graphic documentary. It does not spare the viewer anything the investigators saw and recorded. We see a series of horrible images of pigs suffering from injuries, eating each other in desperation, cramped in terrible conditions, and several already dead or dying. It is hard to believe that places like this exist…let alone in Europe…let alone in the UK…let alone in farms supported by Tesco…let alone in farms awarded the Red Tractor accreditation. But it’s all real, everything happened, and everything continues to happen.
Juliet Gellatley is the founder and director of Viva!, and she is very hands-on. She often accompanies the investigators in their operations, which many directors of animal protection organisations don’t do. We can hear what she felt when she joined her team on this occasion:
“We sent an investigator to Hogwood because we’d had a complaint from a local person about the pig farm. And what he brought back shocked me to the core. I’ve been filming inside factory farms for almost three decades, so I’ve seen a lot. And yet, the total disregard of the animals’ welfare was so apparent. I thought, ‘I’m going to have to go back into this place myself and open up a full investigation from Viva!.’ And as you’re driving along, you know whatever you’re going to see is going to be very unpleasant, so obviously, you feel trepidation. To be completely honest, I felt a sense of fear as well because you don’t know what you’re going to be faced with. In the back of your mind, you’ve got the fact that some farmers are licenced with shotguns. And obviously, it’s pitch black. And of course, you know you’re going to be faced with abject animal misery that nobody wants to see or confront.”
Year after year, Viva” investigators recorded a catalogue of cruelty including extreme overcrowding, routine mutilation, sick and dying pigs abandoned in gangways, painful lacerations and live cannibalism. When you see the footage you realise the scale of such problems. I was particularly affected by the comments that showed that, due to the overcrowding, pigs could not even sleep in peace if they wanted to shut their eyes and try to block it all. The constant noise and the twitching of pigs in distress would propagate like a wave in a sea of pigs’ bodies, reaching every corner of the facility. Sleep deprivation, as Juliet points out, is a well-known form of torture humans use against other humans.
Watching a pile of dead piglets left in a container to be eaten by maggots, Juliet comments, “I suppose you could say it typifies the whole attitude of our British factory farming towards pigs. Tossed aside, literally, as trash, and left to rot. The end of their short, brutal, horrific lives.”
The story continues with Viva! going public with what its investigators found, and with the media picking up on it. That is when we learn that both Red Tractor and Tesco say that have inspected the premises and they do not see any reason to change anything. Despite the obvious evidence of suffering, they stand by their assessment that Hogwood is a top farm in terms of animal welfare.
At this point, anyone watching this documentary will realise how corrupt the system is. They may have heard about “bad apples” and thought that generalising malpractice might be an exaggeration, but the documentary does an excellent job of pitting the statements of Tesco, Rec Tractor, and the vets they bought to rubberstamp the farm’s practice and the reality of what is going on. We then realise that, despite the obvious suffering we have seen, this torture is perfectly legal, and neither the government, the farmers, the veterinary orthodoxy, nor the retailers care —an unashamedly corrupted unscrupulous system.
Not all vets are corrupted though. We then see Dr Alice Brough, a vet who used to work in the pig industry, and who used to do inspections for Red Tractor accreditation. She whistleblows about what is going on. In essence, farmers pay vets to give an opinion about their farm, and if they do not like it they pay another vet until they get the one they want. She says:
“The Red Tractor reassurance scheme is, in my opinion, an elaborate marketing scheme. The money they spend is predominantly on marketing and advertising. If you look closely at their welfare standards they are really not much higher than the basic minimum, and quite frankly, a lot of Red Tractor farms I have seen have been horrifying.”
Dr Brough does not work for the pig industry anymore, and she has now become a strong opponent of factory farming. She adds:
“I don’t think you can have good animal welfare with factory farming. It’s a complete oxymoron. There is no happiness, there is no freedom; there is no freedom to express normal behaviours. Close confinement and high numbers lead to things like cannibalism and these too increase disease risk, and the spread of diseases incredibly fast. For any animal it’s horrendous, but pigs are one of the most intelligent species on the planet. They’ve been shown to have the intelligence levels and emotional complexity of a 3-year-old child.”
When we see the owner of the farm suggesting that the conditions in Hogwood may be better than those of nursing homes, we understand the depth of deception that goes on. I am sure that even the average meat eater with vegan-denying tendencies would cringe when watching the farmer saying such an outrageous statement.
One of Viva’s investigators says, “We are fed this lie constantly about the UK having the best animal welfare standards in the world but it’s just not true, and that’s what we’re trying to show with Hardwoods, that it’s not true”.
Eventually, after four investigations and exposés in three years, and after a nationwide Day of Action where thousands of people came together to protest outside 150 Tesco stores, Hogwood farm was dropped by Tesco, Cranswick plc and Red Tractor, in the summer of 2019. With this campaign victory, Viva! began crowdfunding to be able to produce the documentary about how they did it —and raised over £10,000 in the first 24 hours alone.
More than Just Hogwood
Running at just over 30 minutes long and directed by the vegan journalist and writer Tony Wardle, this documentary does not end with the success of Viva’s Hogwood campaign. It then goes to show that these problems are commonly seen in other pig farms, and indeed in other factory farming involving cows, chickens or turkeys, all of them showing these terrible animal welfare problems, and most of them being typical and within legal limits. It’s a systemic problem; it’s not an anecdotal or a ”bad apple” problem.
Naturally, the documentary goes on to address the issue of animal agriculture as a whole, and how veganism is the solution to many of today’s global crises — including zoonotic pandemics such as COVID-19.
George Cullimor, a GP and public health expert, is interviewed, and he says, “Animal products like meat, dairy, and eggs are pro-inflammatory so they cause inflammation throughout the body which leads to multiple chronic diseases like ischemic heart disease, strokes, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes, whereas plant products actually had the opposite effect. They decrease inflammation and that’s why vegans have much lower rates of those chronic diseases.
He also addresses the issue of antibiotic resistance, and how animal agriculture is responsible for it.
“There is widespread use of antibiotics in animal agriculture across the world. So, in fact, three-quarters of the antibiotics are used for preventative animal agriculture rather than to treat diseases in humans, and this is used deliberately to support an unnatural, intensive, unsanitary form of animal agriculture. In fact, in pig farming, such as in Hogwood, they wean the piglets at a very unnatural early age, which gives them diarrhoea. And then they give them widespread antibiotics, which then leads to resistance.”
The economist Jim O’Neill, when appointed by the UK government to study the issue, said that we are facing an antibiotic resistance apocalypse, and by 2050 more people will die from antibiotic resistance than from cancer.
Viva! is an organisation which does vegan outreach from the animal rights, health, and environmental perspectives. Therefore, the documentary also mentions our climate crisis and how animal agriculture is one of its leading causes. Joseph Poore, Earth Scientist from Oxford University, is the expert they chose to speak about it, as he was part of a study involving 40,000 farms: “One element that stood out consistently was the damage the animal agriculture and animal farming does to the environment. So, if you want to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees and save coral reefs, if we also want to hold and reversed biodiversity loss worldwide from the clearance of forests, for example, and if you want to limit water pollution, air pollution, water use, antibiotic use, and pesticide use, if we want to achieve these things, the science is pretty unanimous: we just cannot have a future with this volume of animal products. That is unsustainable. It’s just simply not a feasible option.”
The documentary “Hogwood: a modern horror story” has already won several accolades, including the winner of the Best British Documentary Film Festival of 2020, the winner of the Independent Film Awards 2020, and the silver winner of the Attitudes Film Awards 2020. However, the best award it can get is to see it watched by as many people as possible. Now that it can be watched on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and Google Play, there is a chance that many people can watch it. But we need to spread the word and ask our friends to bear witness to what happens to the millions of animal victims of factory farming. They don’t have to go to a farm or attend a vigil in front of a slaughterhouse.
They only have to watch it from the comfort of their homes.