Figures newly released through RUMA suggest the UK pig sector is making significant changes in how it stewards antibiotic use in at least one key area, with a halving in prescribed antibiotics administered in feed for young pigs.

National data collected from the UK's major feed compounders indicate that at the beginning of 2014 27 per cent of all feed for young pigs contained a prescribed antibiotic.

This had more than halved to 18 per cent by the end of 2016, and two thirds of the reductions took place in 2016, showing an increasing pace of change.

Paul Toplis, from the Agriculture Industries Confederation, said that figures showed that antibiotic prescriptions dispensed through feed to young pigs did represent a large portion of use.

He said: "We are encouraged to see the rate of reduction in 2016 and this reflects the work between vets and farmers to make some courageous changes.

"Reducing reliance on antibiotics to treat and prevent disease spread could pose significant welfare challenges if not done with the right levels of care and skill."

Mr Toplis added that some of the reductions appear to have been made possible by the use of zinc oxide, which when added to feed can reduce the need for antibiotics in pigs by protecting the gut against E. coli bacteria.

The Pig Veterinary Society welcomed the news of the reductions and acknowledged the efforts of its practising members who regularly visit the herds in their care and work with pig farmers to promote responsible and reduced use of antibiotics.

Susanna Williamson, the society's president, said: "We cannot emphasise enough the importance of veterinary expertise and advice in assessing the disease risks and selecting suitable control options.

"These need to be tailor-made to suit each individual farm and the effects monitored to ensure that initiatives to reduce antibiotic treatment also promote good pig health and welfare.”

Georgina Crayford, of the National Pig Association, said: "Among the programme’s recommendations are the capture of usage data on pig units, benchmarking use against similar farms, and supporting strict limits on the use of critically important antibiotics.

"We look forward to seeing the wider effects on use as data trends from the AHDB’s e-Medicine Book, also launched last year, start to come through later in 2017.”

John FitzGerald, from RUMA, said: "This data shows there is a clear drive to use antibiotics more responsibly and to work alongside the human medical community in reducing, refining and replacing use of antibiotics globally, as well as building on the successful 10 per cent reduction in UK farm animal use in 2015.”