Pig tales

I still love this article.  It was published in The Independent Magazine (19.07.97) and was accompanied by Dan Burn-Forti’s superb portraits of the pigs with their owners. Sadly, some of the people I interviewed have since died, but they all enriched the wonderful world of pig breeding.

Whether it’s to do with biology and their suitability for organ transplants, or their high level intelligence, an extraordinary affinity exists between pigs and people.  But how much are they like their owners, asks Sybil Kapoor?  Photographs by Dan Burn-Forti

The world of Lord Emsworth and the Empress of Blandings, a lady-like Berkshire sow, may be fictitious, but the reality is surprisingly close.  Take the 18th-century Countess of Mount Edgcumbe, who was accompanied everywhere by her pet pig, Cupid.  He shared her meals and even travelled to London with her.  She was so distraught when he died that she buried him in a gold casket and marked the spot with a 30ft obelisk.  Then there was Squire Barry of Fyling Hall, near Robin Hood’s Bay, who built a splendid pigsty disguised as a Grecian temple for his tenant’s Large Whites.  Modern pig lovers may not design grand buildings, but none seem happier than when they are communing with their favourite animals. 

Sitting in the Pig Breeder’s Association tent at the Royal Show, I considered the words of FO Coburn, author of Swine in America: “It is frequently said there is no ‘best breed’, but that is not true.  There is a best breed for every man, but inasmuch as there are many types and classes of men, it is but natural there are various breeds and types of swine.”  So are pigs and their owners well matched?  Perhaps.

Judging had finished for the day, and the small tent began to fill up with victorious owners buying rounds for their less fortunate colleagues.  “It’s hard to justify to the tax man, coming away with a loss after you’ve wond first prize,” confided Tom Alty, whose Middle Whites had enjoyed a particularly good day.  With the pigs having an afternoon nap in their pens, their owners relaxed and settle down to their favourite topic of conversation – pigs and their ways. 

These are the elite of the pig breeding world.  Pigs are their passion – not commercial, hybrid pigs, but true British pigs: animals with a distinguished and protected pedigree.  As Ann Petch of the Rare Breed Survival Trust explains: “Each breed was selectively bred for its own distinct characteristics, and anyone contemplating buying a pig should match these to their own requirements.” She went on to enumerate their different personalities, and carefully drew my attention to their flavours and culinary qualities.  Pig breeders are not squeamish when it comes to talking about eating their animals – “going to the big sausage factory in the sky” as one put it.

For further information on rare breeds, contact The Rare Breeds Survival Trust: https://www.rbst.org.uk

If you wish to order rare breed meat from Heal Farm: http://www.healfarm.co.uk


The British Lop with owner Julian Collings

Pig lovers can be divided into two categories – those that personalise their pigs, and those that see them with the relative detachment of a farmer.  Julian Collings belongs to the latter group: “I never get too emotionally involved, I try to keep my best for breeding and showing and send the rest of my slips (weaners) to Exeter market.”  A tall, fair-haired Cornishman with a gentle manner, he is clearly very fond of his British Lops, despite commercial considerations   “My wife Sue says I walk the pigs like other people walk their dogs, but I like to take them out each evening across the fields so that they get used to the stick and board you use when showing.”

Although he also works as a farm manager, Julian Collings rents a smallholding and, like his father before him, breeds fine-skinned Lops alongside sheep and cattle.  These were once endemic to the West Country, but declined as intensive farming spread.  His pigs peer benignly out from under their huge, floppy ears.  Blinkered vision encourages an equable nature in pigs, and Lops tend to be well-behaved.  “I can’t understand why they’ve become so rre, they’re easy to farm,” reflects Julian, who considers it natural that a Cornish man should keep a Cornish pig. 


The Essex with Iain Whitney

Boar Glascote Dictator 18th has seen the world.  There are not many British Saddlebacks who have enjoyed lunch with Sir Terence Conran, let alone gone along to the local building society to close the piggeries account.  But then Glascote Dictator 18th belongs to Iain Whitney, a criminal barrister who tackles most thing in life with a fearsome energy and can’t resist arguing a good case.  He is currently crusading for the reinstatement of the Essex and thinks nothing of taking Glascote Dictator or his relations on a spree if it helps his cause.  The Essex was amalgamated with the Wessex Saddleback in 1967 due to the dramatic fall in their numbers.  Thirty years to the day after the merger, Whitney held a party to mark the start of a revival for the fine-boned Essex.  A barbecue was lit and succulent saddleback sausages were soon sizzling as cans of lager were raised in a toast to the Essex pig.

Like all pig breeders, Mr Whitney is full of praise for his favoured breed.  “Saddlebacks are very friendly, loving and clever,” he enthuses “and they make excellent mothers.  They can take off your arm or leg, or both, if you approach them too soon after they have given birth.”  This somewhat aggressive attitude ensures that their litters are well protected while young and vulnerable, making them a useful, self-sufficient outdoor pig.

Note: Iain Whitney died in 2003.  The Essex breed remains within the Saddleback fold.


The Berkshire with Ann Petch

Sporting a silver porcine brooch and earring, Ann Petch is clearly addicted to the species.  Her first pig was a sickly waif of a white piglet se was given as a teenager.  Her school work suffered and the piglet thrived.  Many years later; she bought some land with her husband.  “In 1971, I got my first heavily pregnant Gloucester Old Spot.  She had 14 piglets.”  This was the beginning of Heal Farm, from which Ann breeds all seven of the rare breeds.  All her animals are skilfully marketed as top quality meat through telephone order and the farm shop.

A humorous enthusiasm bubbles up through Ann’s conversation as she reminiscences on past pigs and methodically considers their traits of character:  “I love the Berkshires.  They look so neat and dapper.  They are a confident, sociable breed that like to know what is going on and follow their own strict routine.  Mine are fed every morning, then they will root around until about midday, when they like to take their siesta.  They lie down with their trotters out in front and watch he world beneath their paddock.  Occasionally, they will wander down to their mud bath and have a good wallow, just like people in a Jacuzzi.”


The Middle White with Tom Alty

The Middle White is a traditional Northern breed with a squashed face that belies a trusting nature and aportly girth which produces exquisite suckling pig.  A loquacious Lancastrian, and formerly a school headmaster, Tom Alty clearly respects his pigs: “If you are there for them, they will be there for you.  They like to follow me around, and will turn and wait for me when we are out together.  Mind you, they can become very vociferous if you ignore them.”

Every summer, Tom Alty carefully scrubs down and grooms his pigs and sets off on the show circuit.  “I’ show Middle Whites and Large Blacks in the summer and pigeons in the winter.”  A few years ago, he opted for early retirement, a bit of land and his vision of the good life.  “My grandfather used to keep Middle Whites, so it had always been at the back of my mind that when I got the opportunity, I would keep them.”  

Like all good show pigs, Mr Alty’s Middle Whites are carefully and firmly nurtured.  He keeps tem in during the day to protect them from sunburn, and transports them at night so that they don’t suffer from the heat.  A gentle spray of water and vinegar is administered if they exhibit the least sign of heart.  Such efforts are rewarded with repeated success in the ring. 


The Gloucester Old Spot with George Styles

George Styles thoughtfully scratches the back of a prize Gloucester Old Spot as he considers whether they have a personality.  “Well, the Gloucester Old Spot is a jolly nice pig.  They are very intelligent, and some are great characters.”

Descended from four generations of pig keepers, he started his own herd in 1952.  After careful deliberation and sound advice, he chose the Gloucester Old Spot and developed one of the largest herds in the country.  It is an unflappable, reliable pig, perfect for beginners.  Consequently, they are often the first choice of those new to pig keeping, many of whom have notions of their pig snuffling up leather jackets and couch grass in the orchard.  “I’ve retired now, but I still keep eight or nine sows for pleasure,”  says George Styles.  His quiet, measured tone, with its soft Gloucestershire accent, instils a sense of confidence in the breed’s future.  The pig settles down under his soothing hands as he describes how their fortunes have revived under the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s scheme to promote meat.  “We always knew that the quality of pork was very high.  It might have a little more fat marbled through the meat than pork out of a supermarket, but it tastes superb.”

Note:  George Styles died in 2009.


The Tamworth with Nick Hunkin

Nick Hunkin mops his brow with a sense of relief and smiles fondly at Clarrisa, now safely back in her pen having scampered around the show ground after her juding session.  She glances at Nick, grunts and acknowledgement, then wiggles her tail and settles down to feed.  Tamworths, of which Clarissa is a fine specimen, are the liveliest (some say most intelligent) of the rare breeds.

Nick Hunkin is the regional southern manager of Butterorth and Tolley Publishers.  “A friend of ours had told us how interesting Tamworths were, and when we saw Poppy at a Rare Breeds Show in Exeter; we couldn’t resist buying her.”  Her arrival changed their lives.  “Tammies are very smart , and they’re very amiable.”  I rather felt the same description could be applied to the Hunkins.  Soon they were making plans to buy more land and more Tamworths.

Hunkin admires the long snouts, strong legs and sprightly carriage and explains how they are the race horses of the pig world.  Race horses that make the best bacon and pork.  Another gilt pushes her ginger snout up to him, snuffles and looks to see if he is going to take her for a walk.

Note:  Nick Hunkin died 2012


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