A passion for pigs
08:11 28 March 2014
Our new columnist is Liz Shankland. Over the coming months, she will be demystifying the business of keeping, showing, and breeding pedigree pigs in Country Smallholding magazine.
I blame my parents, you know. Growing up in a tiny terraced house in Merthyr Tydfil in the south Wales valleys, I was never allowed to have anything bigger than a cat as a pet. The cat was the highpoint, a major breakthrough; before that, it had been just terrapins, hamsters, and gerbils. All the while, all I really wanted was a dog – something big enough to have a relationship with, to make a fuss of, and to go places and have fun with.
So now that I’m all grown up and have more land at my disposal than the average valleys girl could ever dream of, I’m making up for what I missed out on. When I moved to my smallholding eight years ago, one of the first things I promised myself was a dog. I ended up with three big, huggable Welsh Mountain Dogs – a relatively new breed produced by crossing Newfoundland, Bernese Mountain Dog and Border Collie.
But it didn’t stop there. Like most newcomers to smallholding, husband Gerry Toms and I started off with chickens, progressed to ducks and turkeys, and, before we knew it, we also had a small flock of sheep and some British Alpine goats. All fascinating creatures in their own way – and some extremely tasty, too – but the best was yet to come. I was destined to become a pig keeper and, eventually, a pig breeder.
I’ve had a thing about pigs ever since I was a child growing up in the 1960s, surrounded by slag heaps and scarred landscapes of my home town, which was once the iron and steel capital of the world. I’ll always remember the day when I saw an enormous runaway sow which had escaped from a farm, wandering around the village of Dowlais. Spotting a pig outdoors – never mind wandering down your street – was as unlikely as encountering a zebra in the corner shop. At that time, most pork was reared intensively indoors, and the word “free-range” was unheard of. The good news is that today, more and more people are turning the clock back and spreading the message that the best way to rear pigs is the natural way. I’m sure it’ll be a long while before pigs in fields and woodlands become a familiar sight, but I like to think we’ll get there one day.
For most people, agricultural shows and community farms are the only places which provide the opportunity to come face-to-face with pigs, particularly the traditional breeds which used to be so popular in Britain but are now struggling for survival. The British Lop and the Middle White face the greatest threat at the moment, being classified by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as endangered; the Berkshire, Large Black, Tamworth and the Welsh are described as vulnerable; the British Saddleback is at risk; and the Gloucestershire Old Spots is classed as a ‘minority’ breed.
The past year has not been a good time for pig farmers. Feed prices have rocketed and profits have dwindled. Big commercial suppliers feel short-changed by the supermarkets, which continue to buy in cheap meat from abroad. Our farmers are also bound by stricter welfare regulations than those in most other EU countries, making pig production much more expensive. Disillusioned and increasingly desperate producers are scaling back or giving up.
But this isn’t the complete story. Whilst the big boys may be finding the going tough, many small pig farmers are managing to keep their businesses afloat - and, in many cases, profitable. Farmers and smallholders who specialise in rare breeds tend to sell niche market meat which can command a premium price. They sell a high-quality, free-range product to friends and neighbours, at farmers’ markets, at the farm gate, and, increasingly, over the internet. In my own experience, discerning customers are keen to pay that little bit extra for meat which tastes a world apart from the flavourless, non-descript pork with the bargain price tags – and which they know has been reared in a kind and sensitive way.
Me and my pigs
Gerry will tell you I started going at him about getting pigs soon after we got our smallholding. I bought all the books and read up on the various breeds and all aspects of pig husbandry. The best move I made, however, was to join the Wales and Border Counties Pig Breeders’ Association. I was a member for two years before I actually got round to getting my first pigs. During that time, I got to know lots of breeders, tried all the different types of pork, and did all my homework. By the time our land was ready to accept pigs – with secure stock fencing and water piped to each field – I felt fairly knowledgeable and confident about what I was getting into.
Pigs are the most rewarding of livestock to keep, highly intelligent and fascinating. Winston Churchill famously acknowledged this when he said: “Cats look down on you; dogs look up to you; but pigs look you in the eye as equals.”
Without a doubt, pigs are the easiest of farm animals to fall in love with. Smart and entertaining, they are so easy to bond with that many people get far too attached and can’t bear to part with them when they reach slaughter weight. If I had a pound for every smallholder I’d met with a fat, ageing pig, I wouldn’t still be working for a living.
Sending an animal off to the abattoir is never easy; it gets easier with time, but I still feel bad every time I coax one of my pigs into the trailer and shut the tail gate. The guilt never goes away. My life as a pig keeper started off by buying in a succession of Tamworth weaners to raise to slaughter weight. They were lovingly raised for six months and then sent off on a one-way mystery tour. The compensation for feeling like Lady Macbeth, trying to wipe invisible blood from my hands, was great-tasting pork – the best I had ever had. But it didn’t remove the weird feeling I got when I looked at the empty fields which had once been filled with lively ginger pigs happily rooting around. As there was a short supply of Tamworths where I live, those fields would often lie empty for several months, and I started thinking about breeding my own, not just to fill the void, but also to ensure a steady supply for my increasing list of customers.
At about the same time, I started taking more of an interest in the showing side of things. At agricultural shows, I noted how different Tamworth bloodlines produced pigs with different characteristics. I wondered, too, what it would be like to don a white coat and get into the show ring myself, and maybe even having sows of my own producing litters which would bear my herd prefix.
The dream started to become a reality in July 2007, when I bought two registered gilts from my piggie mentor, Barbara Warren, an experienced breeder and Tamworth judge whose farm sits 1,000ft above Pontypool in south Wales. Barbara, more than anyone else, has encouraged me and given me the confidence to start showing and breeding. She is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to pigs and, as show secretary for the Wales & Border Counties Pig Breeders’ Association, has probably done more than any other person to promote rare breed pigs in Wales. She is the driving force behind the association’s activities at major events like the Royal Welsh Smallholder & Garden Festival and the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show, coming up with ideas including parades of all the various breeds, ‘history of the pig’ displays, and even pig agility contests.
It was she who persuaded me to enter my gilts - Barbara (named after the great Mrs Warren, of course) and Bramble - in the Royal Welsh Smallholder & Garden Festival in May this year. It was a nerve-wracking experience – one which I’ll recount in more detail in a future edition of Country Smallholding when I give advice on starting off in the show ring – but I got through it without too many disasters, and even came away with a handful of rosettes. I got a second and a fifth, and best of all the coveted Champion Tamworth rosette. Kind of like ‘Best of Breed’ at Crufts, I suppose.
But the biggest challenge is yet to come. This summer one of my sows gave birth to a lovely litter of eight piglets. I’m keeping one of the gilts for breeding, which means that next year I’m going to be competing at shows with one of my own home-bred offspring, the first to carry the ‘Tudful’ herd prefix. It’s the start of another new chapter in my life as a pig woman, and I can’t wait. I’ve got the bug good and proper now, and there’s no going back.