Small-scale pig farming is on the rise. Charles Nevin takes a course at Pig Paradise Farm and brings home the bacon ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2009
“Some pig.” That was the pithy way the young porker Wilbur was described by his friend and mentor, Charlotte the spider, in E.B. White’s classic children’s book. I thought of it as I watched my pig, Henry, snoozing gently in the autumn sunshine, snout in the straw at the front of the sty, face betraying a drowsy pleasure remarkably similar to that seen in many a deckchair after a good lunch. As Lord Emsworth observes, contemplating the most famous pig in literature, The Empress of Blandings: “What a picture!”
These benign bucolic cameos stay with us, and they have surely played a part in a renaissance in small-scale pig-keeping. The British Pig Association reports a 30% increase in membership in a year. Other persuasive influences include the recession, the green virtues of waste avoidance and local produce, and, equally importantly, discerning foodieism. We small-pig people do not deal in anonymous, industrial pigs. Our pigs are rare pigs: Gloucester Old Spots, Middle Whites, Berkshires, Tamworths, the old English breeds swept aside by supermarket synergies. The money we make comes from the people whose mouths become moist at the merest mention of matters porcine.
In my case, it’s money we hope to make. My family and I have a house in rural Somerset that we cannot keep in the manner to which it should be accustomed. The farther reaches of the garden have begun to resemble Papua New Guinea. Pigs, it was put to us, were the answer. Unrivalled at ground clearance. Snorting, truffling, living rotavators. Buy a couple of weaned pigs at two months old, set them to the land, then sell them for the table. Clear garden, clear profit. What bankers call a win-win situation, or used to.
But I am by nature a cautious man: there are, surely, no free grunts. My Blandings reveries came shadowed by the baleful warnings of “Animal Farm”, and, worse, that head on a stick in “Lord of the Flies”. And my family has history. Both my father and grandfather, Lancashire grocers, tried pigs; both times, the pigs caught a fever and my sires caught a cold. But this was different: no ambitious plans to breed, only two of them, and for a limited engagement only.
There are day courses for the tyro keeper. My wife and I went to one at Pig Paradise Farm in Chitterne, Wiltshire, run by Tony York, an ebullient former sales director and mustard-keen swineaste, and his partner Carron McCann, a charming former headteacher. There were almost 20 of us, mostly married couples, and eclectic proof of the burgeoning movement: care-home owners, heating-systems engineers, an A-level examiner, a “Doctor Who” set designer, an IT consultant looking for a change, and almost the entire workforce of a small organic herbal skincare business (my wife, top end of the garden).
We were put through a packed programme, of which I remember most clearly: 1) Nothing quite prepares you for the violent volume of a pig’s squeal. 2) They do this rather a lot. 3) Piglets do not like being lifted. 4) When feeding up weaners, it’s “one for a loss, two to break even, three to make a profit.” 5) Contrary to expectations, piglets smell like babies. 6) A pig’s penis operates like a corkscrew, left-hand thread. 7) A pig’s testicles are extremely large and have the consistency of a rubber ball. 8) If you tickle a pig under its foreleg, it goes into a trance and falls over. 9) Pigs can fly, if they get between their mother and the trough. 10) Watch your costs very closely. I don’t remember why I was feeling a pig’s testicles.
We decided to press on, quickly, eyes fixed on the Christmas market (the £118.25 per person for the course, pork lunch extra, vegetarian option available, was also quite influential). Weaners were available, nearly all of them Tamworths. Now if you know anything about Tamworths, it may be down to the Tamworth Two, the exuberant abattoir escapees dubbed Butch and Sundance by an excited press during their week on the run in 1998 (and now living in luxury in Kent, courtesy of the Daily Mail). A certain friskiness, then, possibly inconsistent with placid, low-maintenance agricultural implementation at the bottom of the garden. But four–more profit!–were instantly available nearby, at a reasonable £50 a head, from the oldest herd in the country, that of the president of the Tamworth Breeders’ Club, no less, Caroline Wheatley-Hubbard, at Boyton Farm in the Wylye Valley.
Caroline, in finest neo-rural fashion, runs a combined food and crafts complex in her farmyard, named, in tribute to the Tamworth, the Ginger Piggery. The breed was “the most intelligent pig by a long shot”, she told us. Up on the Boyton Downs, where some of her herd were enjoying a sunny panorama, I was reminded of the well-fed pig voicing the old joke, “You know, there’s got to be a catch in this.”
This had been of some concern to us, callow ex-urbans that we are. Even Emma Bush, an experienced pig breeder and pork purveyor, looked pensive as she described how a pig, about to enter the truck for the slaughterhouse, will look back for reassurance. Piglets, Tony York had said, have an almost universal “aahh” factor. You are advised not to give them names.
My first thought, however, on being introduced to ours, was how on earth we were going to get them in the back of the car. Possibly taking Tony’s advice on costs too far, we had decided against hiring a van. These four were three months old, not two, and well beyond the aahh stage. Judging by the tussle, just young enough, too, to be rolled through the hatchback two-by-two after Caroline had hoisted them by the back legs while I grabbed the front. A struggle, but worth it for the looks on fellow motorists’ faces as the pigs stared out of the back window at them. Not to mention the expressions as we pulled up at an Indian restaurant to shut the back properly.
Once we were home, coaxing them to the bottom of the garden took on a flavour of those big-game hunts that often featured in Stewart Granger movies, with wary native beaters moving through dense undergrowth to the sound of loud drums. But eventually the pigs were fenced in, safe in their sty, or ark (now available at £349 from B&Q, or £180 when cannily, if not very aesthetically, constructed by us from a couple of pallets and some marine ply). The fencing, at £70, was another economy job, despite people tapping the side of their noses about Tamworths and recommending electrification (£140). Tony York also had a single strip of barbed wire laid along the ground at the bottom of the fence, but I thought that might be unpleasant for their snouts. Fool that I am. Under, over, through: all’s the same to a Tamworth. Steve McQueen would have given one of his rueful smiles of peer recognition to these boys. On one occasion, the largest pig—Henry, after the Eighth—was using the smallest—Hucknall, squeals a lot—to climb over the fence. The derivation of “piggyback” is no longer a mystery.
Luring them back became more and more difficult. They were, if you’ll forgive me, absolute swine. Worries about the pain of separation and betrayal did not loom large. The final, pre-electrification break-out had the pigs hiding, completely silent, in the farthest reach of the garden. Tony York once came across some pigs similarly mute and stock-still: they were listening for the sound of a falling acorn. They do like their food. We give them organic pellets and windfalls to supplement their ruthless foraging. (Kitchen swill has been outlawed in Britain, and subsequently in Europe, since being blamed for the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak. The authorities require registration and movement notification for all pigs and enforce it with all the bureaucratic doubling-up and spot-checking that do so much for government-citizen relations.)
An Emsworthian calm, measured by the sound of rhythmic grunting and lip-smacking, has now returned to our garden, occasionally interrupted by a high-pitched, momentarily guilt-inducing yelp. And I have made some further observations: 1) All pigs are not equal. Henry rules Hucknall, Fred (after Barbarossa) and Churchill with a grumpy arbitrariness his namesake would recognise. 2) Pigs can bite. 3) You should never look a pig in the eye. Most unsettling. 4) Pigs will eat almost anything, but not St John’s Wort. Clearly, depression is not a problem. 5) Pigs like having their photograph taken.
We have already sold six halves of pig (about 50lbs at £3 a lb); my wife is especially proud of the sale to the car salesman selling us a car. As I write, the day of execution is a little way off. As you read, it will have been done, and I shall be relieved.
Churchill (the statesman) said: “I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.” Mr Ernie Clothier, animal-feed merchant, puts it another way in his slow Somerset burr: “Having pigs is like meeting a strange woman. You’re not sure where she’s come from, and you’re not sure where she’s taking you to.” Both are good, but don’t completely capture this curious relationship.
Picture Credit: Alistair Hood
(Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street.)