Pigs: introduction

What are pigs?

We’re talking about Sus domesticus, kept for meat – pork, gammon, ham, bacon and sausages. Modern breeds have been bred from the older rare breeds to grow quickly, have less fat and have a longer body. Modern breeds are few, and include the Large White, Landrace and Duroc. Rare breeds didn’t use to be rare of course. Each county had its distinctive breed – Gloucestershire Old Spot, Tamworth, Berkshire, Oxford Sandy & Black etc. (and some breeds have become extinct, like the Lincolnshire Curly Coat), but the modern supermarket food system wants uniformity and leanness. Rare breeds meat tends to be marbled with fat, which adds to flavour (but isn’t unhealthy because it’s unsaturated, and you don’t eat much of it). The British Pig Association has a list of rare breed pigs.

feeding time for 4 Saddlebacks

Feeding time for 4 Saddlebacks.

There are specific breeds from different parts of the world – like the Vietnamese Pot-bellied Pig, the Kune Kune from New Zealand and the Black Iberian Pigs from Spain which get fat on acorns from oak woods, giving Jamon Iberico such a special flavour.

Domestic pigs were bred from wild boars over 12,000 years ago, and in the UK, the Tamworth is closest to a wild boar. A Tamworth crossed with a wild boar produces an ‘Iron Age pig’ – or something very similar to pigs kept in the Iron Age.

Before WW1, there were often ‘street pigs’. The whole street would feed the pig on scraps, use its poo on the veg patch, and share the meat when it was killed in the winter.

moving pigs around using boards

Moving pigs around using boards.

Pigs are intelligent animals that love to root around in the earth. However, to provide supermarkets with tons of cheap pork, millions of pigs are raised intensively in sheds with concrete floors. They are often kept in darkness with slats in the concrete to allow the slurry to run through. They are densely packed, breathing slurry vapours with nothing to stimulate them – they fight, and often get rhinitis, which causes their nasal passages to decay.

The good news is that farmers can now get a premium price for pigs kept outdoors; specialist meats are much more popular; there is more concern about animal cruelty (and intensive pig-rearing is certainly that); and more people want to try the ‘River Cottage’ lifestyle and keep pigs themselves (although getting a smallholding is difficult and expensive – but that’s another story). Sometimes large landowners allow local pig-keepers to run their pigs on their land in the autumn to eat fallen beech nuts and acorns.

Home-made pig house that opens up onto two separate areas of land

Home-made pig house that opens up onto two separate areas of land – just close one door and open the other.

What are the benefits?

Keeping pigs provides all the usual benefits of producing your own food – you know it’s organic, fresh and local, lower food miles, cruelty-free, and you’re not supporting the corporate supermarkets (if you don’t know why that’s a good thing, see here).

Also, pigs can dig and manure ground for you in preparation for a crop. And if they go in after potatoes, they’ll get a bit of free food (you never get all of your potatoes up). Pigs can also be used for truffle hunting, the meat can be cured and preserved longer than other meats, and there are other by-products, such as gelatin and tallow.

Plus, there are additional benefits to keeping rare breeds. They are easier to look after, and not so susceptible to diseases. Their genes are more stable and robust because they’ve developed over thousands of generations. Rare breeds are happy to live outdoors, foraging. The Gloucestershire Old Spot used to be called the orchard pig, as it tended to live in orchards, eating fallen fruit.

piglets

Piglets suckling.

What can I do?

Well, you can make sure that you don’t buy industrially-produced pork, bacon or sausages, so that you’re supporting small, humane pig-keepers. If the label doesn’t say they were raised outdoors, they almost definitely weren’t. Then if you decide to do it yourself, probably the first thing to do is attend a course, to see if it’s for you.

Land

You can keep a couple of pigs on half an acre, split into 2 so that you can move them if the ground in one becomes too soggy. Contrary to popular belief, pigs don’t like the ground too muddy, although they do like some mud to wallow in, especially on hot days. If all their ground is muddy though, they can get foot rot. It’s not fair to keep them in a small sty or pen. They need room to root around, and they have a separate toilet area. They can’t do those things in too small an area, and become stressed. You’ll need to contain them with wire pig netting and hefty posts (pigs are strong). Bury the pig netting to a good depth, or put barbed wire at the bottom to stop them rooting under it. You can also use electric fencing or dry stone walls.

Pigs being kept in woodland, where their wild ancestors would have lived

Pigs being kept in woodland, where their wild ancestors would have lived; three Tamworth / Gloucestershire Old Spot crosses and one Gloucestershire Old Spot / Saddleback cross.

Housing

The pig house just needs to be dry inside. You can make one yourself, or use something like an old horse box. Put straw on the floor for them to make a ‘nest’ – not hay, as it has mould spores and dust that can get into their eyes, like humans. Their bedding doesn’t need to be changed often, if at all, as they don’t use their sleeping area as a toilet. Just top it up from time to time.

Legal requirements

Your land has to have a holding number (see DEFRA), then a herd number, from different places in different parts of the country, confusingly. It could be your local authority or it could be Trading Standards – you’ll have to check. Pigs don’t need vaccinations. Some breeders choose to worm them, but it’s not a legal requirement (garlic and cider vinegar in their drinking water works well as a wormer). You need a movement form when pigs are moved from one site to another – online or by calling the British Pig Association.

Getting pigs

A piglet is a baby; a weaner is 6-8 weeks old; a gilt is a female pig that hasn’t had piglets; a sow has had piglets; and a boar is a male of any age. It might be an idea for first-timers to get 2 boar weaners. You’ll become attached, and you might be tempted to keep females for breeding, but boars become too big and aggressive, and have to go. Registerd rare breed weaners can cost up to £80, but cross-breed weaners are usually around £40. There’s no difference in the taste of the meat. See smallholding or pig magazines, or if it’s your first time, it might be a good idea to get them from a local pig-keeper, who you can build a relationship with and ask questions. Find your local smallholder society, or see ads at local agricultural merchants or in the local paper. You’ll need a minimum of 2, as they’re intelligent animals, and can get lonely and depressed if kept alone. If you don’t want them to do much rooting up of your land, choose a breed with a shorter snout, like the Middle White (a rare breed). Another general characteristic: ears that flop over the eyes tends to mean a gentle, calm nature; ears pricked up – more flighty and nervous. But this can also depend on how much they’re handled when they’re young.

Making a fuss of three

Making a fuss of three Oxford Sandy & Blacks.

Care

They need fresh water at all times, and each pig can get through a bucketful a day in the summer. You can buy concentrated pig feed – a dry mash of wheat, soya and fish meal. Get it from an organic supplier to ensure it’s not GM soya.

It’s now illegal to feed pigs any local catering waste, or waste food from kitchens where there has been meat. They can still be fed fruit, veg, bakery or dairy waste, but the laws are so complicated that most perfectly good pig food goes to landfill or incinerators, so instead of recycling the nutrients through pigs to produce meat and to enrich the soil, 20 million tonnes a year of waste food go to landfill or incinerators where it causes pollution and wastes money. And then small farmers have to replace this waste food with soya beans from the Amazon. Pigs have always been fed waste food. The problem is not pigswill, but keeping thousands of animals intensively and transporting them all over the country, and even abroad. We support the right of people who keep a few pigs outdoors and kill them on-site or send them to a local abattoir, to give their animals waste food. It makes commercial and environmental sense. See here for more info.

Meat production & slaughter

Pigs are usually dispatched after 6-9 months. If you plan to raise pigs for consumption by yourself and your immediate family, you can dispatch animals yourself provided it is done humanely. Slaughtering the animals on farm could be considered the compassionate option, saving them the stress of a long journey and the unfamiliar environment of the slaughterhouse. The task is not for everyone though, and pigs take more skill to dispatch than sheep or goats.

A shotgun is the most recommended tool, for your own safety and the welfare of the animal. Single shot humane killers are another commonly used projectile. Other guns can be used but come with more safety and welfare concerns. See the Humane Slaughter Association for more information. It is highly recommended you complete training in humane slaughter before undertaking this task. In pigs the target area is particularly small and the brain deep in the skull, skill and confidence is therefore particularly important. You should also ensure you have an appropriate firearms license.

If you plan to sell your meat you will need to send your pigs to a slaughterhouse. Find a local abattoir if you can. You can then either take on the butchery yourself or pay extra for the slaughterhouse to do it for you. If you do it yourself, you will need to follow hygiene regulations and have your premises inspected by Environmental Health on a regular basis. Contact the Food Standards Agency for further information.

 

See DEFRA guidelines for more information on pig-keeping.

 

Thanks to Rachel Benson of Old Sleningford Farm for information.


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