Once upon a time there were three little pigs. Here follows my account of Neale's first of many ventures into rare breed pig keeping back in 2010, charting the antics of Tallulah the Berkshire, Lola the Tamworth and Oinky the Gloucester Old Spot.
Today Neale my husband finally realised one of his dreams, keeping rare breed pigs. He collected his three weaners from HMP Hewell Grange in Worcestershire from a guy called Mike Bant who is a warden at the prison in charge of the breeding programme. The inmates at the prison help to look after the pigs which are taken to the weaner stage before being sold on to people like us.
They breed three types of rare breed pigs, the Tamworth, Gloucester Old Spot and Berkshires. The Tamworth and Berkshire breed are categorised as vulnerable according to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust whereas the Gloucester Old Spot is considered a minority categorisation which basically means it is at a lesser risk (i.e. more popular).
Neale took our friend’s daughter, Bella, aged eight to pick them up. Bella has had her heart set on becoming a farmer since she could talk. The Berkshire girl is 12 weeks old whereas the Tamworth girl and Gloucester boy are only 8 weeks. Bella christened them Crackling, Sausage and Oinky respectively. Crackling and Sausage was a bit too near the mark for me so they became Tallulah and Lola. It was quite tricky loading the back of the Nissan X-Trail with three unruly, scared, squealing pigs who had never left their litters before and hadn’t met each other before being hurled into the boot. By the time Neale had got home Tallulah had established herself as top pig with Oinky, the little boy being very much at the bottom of the pecking order with chewed, bloodied ears to prove it.
There was great excitement as we let them loose into their prepared corner of the field complete with brand new pig arc. That they didn’t trust us and wanted nothing to do with us was evident by the fact that they ran away from us squealing every time we tried to approach them. After spending a few hours with them just sitting in the field we left them until dusk. Imagine our surprise when they refused to go to bed in their lovely snuggly arc with billowing straw. Instead they slept outside right up against the fence alongside each other. I was amazed at how it had only taken a few hours for the pigs to bond. I must confess to feeling rather guilty as I climbed into bed and wrapped my goose down duvet around me thinking of our new arrivals shivering in a porcine huddle in the cold.
Three tired, cold little piggies
We were thrilled when friends of ours who run a local organic vegetable box scheme agreed to give us any leftover or rotting fruit and veg for the pigs. As a result this week we have had two boxes of rotting pears, kiwi fruits, apples, cabbage and carrots. The pigs must have thought it was Christmas and just adored the kiwi fruit. I even managed to get Tallulah to the edge of the pig arc with a squashed kiwi! Every night we go out to see if the pigs have put themselves to bed but so far it’s been the (now) earthy patch by the fence they huddle up in. At least it’s been dry and sunny every day but it must get cold during the early hours. Fingers crossed we’ll get them into that arc eventually.
It's now one week since our pigs arrived and I can't believe Tallulah, Lola and Oinky are still refusing to sleep in their pig arc. I managed to coax Oinky and Lola into the arc with some apple but Tallulah is having none of it. As she's top pig she obviously controls what the others do. It's quite frustrating because she is so stand-offish whereas Oinky, who is the friendliest so far, comes up and lets you rub his back. Lola is still unsure what to make of us.
Three greedy little piggies
I can’t believe how much these little piggies eat. They are unbelievably greedy and seem to be flying through their food at an alarming rate. The pigs let you know if they’re really hungry by running up to you as soon as they hear the gate open. They push the metal feeding trough over and shove it around and if they’re really hungry they bite your feet and trousers. Thank goodness we also have the leftover fruit and veg from our local organic box scheme to supplement their feed. I did find out this week that they particular liked stale fruit cake, with the result that Tallulah, Lola and Oinky started scrapping over the scattered lumps. When Neale went on his one day course on pig keeping at Pig Paradise he was told that if you allowed a pig to live to the end of its natural life, which can be as long as twenty years, it would cost in the order of £60,000 to feed and house it! I obviously didn’t believe him then but I’m beginning to see there might be some truth in this now.
The Pig Paradise course was well worth going on. Neale enjoyed it immensely and has found the course incredibly useful. Tony York who runs it down in Wiltshire covers all sorts of pig keeping issues from the boring paperwork/Defra side to the feeding, keeping, breeding and eating of all the different rare breed pigs. They keep breeding stock of all the rare breeds so you can see the latest litters and adults and you can also buy weaners from him too if you can’t find any locally.
Tucked up in bed at last
After several weeks of fine weather it has finally rained. I can only imagine Tallulah’s, Lola’s and Oinky’s surprise as they felt drops landing on them in the middle of the night in their huddle by the fence. Consequently Tallulah, the Berkshire, gave in and made the sensible decision to retreat to the comparative luxury of a dry, snuggly pig arc closely followed by Lola and Oinky who I suspect had wanted to be in there all along. Pig psychology! Just as well, I was thinking of converting the arc into another henhouse. It was nearly as exciting as Christmas morning for me and Neale when we crept out to their bit of field to find them cuddled up inside. They looked really sweet and despite us calling them with food they didn’t want to know. I think pigs skip the toddler stage and do mainly the teenage stage grunting, eating for England and sleeping.
Rather sweetly Lola and Oinky are very keen on having their back scratched. Oinky, the Gloucester old Spot, appears to have peeling sunburnt pink skin which is especially noticeable around the back of his ears, or it may just be incredibly bad dandruff. Lola just looks as if she’s got bad dandruff. They both arch their backs in ecstasy when scratched. In fact Oinky loves being rubbed so much he collapses onto the ground with all four limbs stretched out front and back. I haven’t managed to take a decent photo of this yet as it’s rather difficult scratching and snapping at the same time but my best efforts are below.
They’ve also been making friends this week. Tom, our new neighbour, has just bought the very pretty but semi-derelict cottage next door. He used to be a gamekeeper and has two incredibly well behaved labradors who he walks several times a day around the fields next to ours. He is also a dog trainer and still gives lessons so I’m seriously thinking about sending our rather mouthy Jack Russell, Otto, to him. Otto is the sweetest most complex dog I know but he does have issues mainly with any intruders and that includes anything and anyone coming within eyeshot of the place! Quite useful in some ways and incredibly annoying in others. Oh and he’s intensely jealous. Strangely enough neither Otto or Sydney our labrador have quite worked out what the pigs are or for. If only they knew pigs = sausages! By the way their favourites are the Pork sausages from Dukeshill!!
Tallulah, Lola and Oinky have created, after a major programme of digging and rooting, their very own sandpit. Our soil is very sandy and with all the nice dry weather they found the spot underneath the Hawthorn bush the perfect place to be to enjoy their frequent siestas. I’ve been surprised at how much sleep three growing pigs need but they are very rarely up when Neale or I go out to feed them in the mornings. They are just like teenagers who don’t want to get up and take about a minute to realise we’ve been rattling their bucket of food, at which point they sprint out of the pig arc in a big uncoordinated pile of pig! They retire to their sandpit for several siestas during the day and amusingly are quite late to bed, usually out and about snuffling in the dark when we go out to check on them last thing at night.
Tallulah’s first suitor
Tallulah is in shock today. We had Nick and Margaret around for lunch with their stunning Deerhound, Merlin. Merlin is nearly as big as a horse and has a beautiful black and grey coat. He is also one of the sweetest natured dogs I have come across, so much so that he was incredibly sensitive to the need to submit to Otto and Sydney, our Jack Russell and Lab, and to not eat Gus, the cat. After a lovely lunch we walked round to the pigs’ patch. As soon as Merlin laid eyes on them he was smitten. He cleared the fence and was gone, galloping after three squealing, screaming, terrified pigs. It quickly became clear he only had eyes for Tallulah who got the surprise of her life when he looked as if he was trying to mount her (or eat her – couldn’t be sure). Nick raced after Merlin and gave him a good telling off and Merlin was sort of contrite. He just sat by Nick gazing through the fence at Tallulah who was by now in the recovery position in her sandpit with severe heart palpitations. I think it must have been because Tallulah has the same colouring as Merlin and she is unbelievably beautiful. Sadly I didn’t manage to capture this on film as you’ll understand I was quite busy at the time!
Bathtime for Bonzo
“Raining cats and dogs” is the expression I would use to describe the weather this week but it was much needed for the garden. As a result the pigs haven’t managed to get in as much sunbathing as they would have liked. To cheer them up Neale bought home a batch of 42 Treacle puddings from a rejected batch at work (our steam oven had broken down). Treacle puddings are what pigs like best we’ve discovered. We’ve had to ration them to one pudding each in the morning and one each in the evening, however every time we go out they get so excited it’s a bit like standing at the finishing line of the 100m when Usain Bolt is coming at you! Hilariously Tallulah was so determined to win the race just now that she tripped and rolled and ended up in a hideously muddy mess as you can see. Can’t say the humiliation seemed to bother her though and in fact she didn’t hurry to get her face out of the mud.
I realise that I have yet to post really good front face shots of our three rare breed pigs, Tallulah, Lola and Oinky. It’s actually quite difficult to manage to get a good shot because they’re so inquisitive. Anyway here’s my best efforts so far.
It’s been really interesting watching their characters emerge. Neale is enamoured with the Berkshire, Tallulah. She certainly seems to be the boldest now and is very endearing with her efforts to dominate the small group. I would describe Tallulah as the “Mae West” of the group, with Lola being more like a “Grace Kelly” in temperament and general gracefulness. I’m not sure how I’d describe Oinky yet but he is sweet natured and concentrates all his efforts on eating.
“This week I have been mostly eating treacle pudding” is what they would tell you if they could. Suffice to say that we have finally reached the last of the rejected batch of treacle puddings and although we limited the pigs to one each every morning and again in the evening they just couldn’t get enough. In fact I’m not sure too much of a good thing is good for pigs as they became progressively more assertive and intimidating during this period of supplementary feeding. I went in one morning wearing flip flops (possibly a silly thing to do anyway) but had to make a very hasty exit when the pigs kept nipping my toes. They’ve got sharp not so little teeth and my thoughts turned to that novel Hannibal, which I had always thought of as ridiculous but I’m not so sure now! The part where some stooge is thrown in with the pigs to be eaten alive. If he tasted of treacle pudding I could well believe it.
I do vaguely remember when working at the Malton Bacon Factory in the abattoir nearly twenty five years ago that if a pig arrived injured its companions would turn on it in the lairage and it was quite often kinder to dispatch the pig there and then than leave it in the lairage overnight. Believe it or not pigs do have cannibalistic tendencies. Anyway on the bright side they will taste delicious after all this treacle and certainly won’t need marinading!
I have found it fascinating to watch our three rare breed pigs develop their very individual characters. When I used to work in the pig lairage at the Malton Bacon factory we would receive up to 1400 pigs a day, where they were housed for up to 24 hours prior to slaughter. They were a Landrace commercial breed and so all looked the same, hence I never really noticed or had time to notice their characters. The only thing I do remember is they had a rather nasty habit of turning on an injured pig which would have to be despatched immediately with a captive bolt gun to put it out of its misery. This shadier side of a pigs character is never really seen by the public, we all have cute images of pigs thrust in front of us from birth. Having said that I absolutely love pigs, they’re certainly no worse than humans. They get excited, bored, hungry, vocal, seek the company of others and have spats. However they never seem to hold grudges. This has been so evident from Lola’s, our Tamworth, repeated bullying of Oinky, the boy Gloucester Old Spot. It mainly happens when there’s food about but also occasionally she just bites his ear anyway. Poor Oinky squeals each time but later on you see him nuzzled up against Lola and Tallulah, the Berkshire. Yes, after three months I have fallen deeply in love with our pigs.
The impending execution day is drawing nearer for all three and even though I have worked in abattoirs and on the killing line it is very difficult to come to terms with when it is an animal you have personally cared for. Even when I was hardened to it all, I did and still maintain that it is a horrible process despite all the best abattoir procedures and designs to ease the animals stress. Twenty four years ago when I was working in the abattoir we had water sprays to cool the pigs down, fed them reject chocolates and other foods, played classical music to soothe them. However when the machinery was turned on every morning and the noise spooked the pigs they spent the rest of their short lives squealing, stressed and smelling the blood just round the corner. Oh yes, it’s going to be unbelievably hard in a few weeks time.
One of the main things I’ve really noticed with our pigs is how much noise they make and how often. The volume and pitch varies enormously from completely hysterical, Lola the Tamworth at feeding time, to a gentle grunt when they are just snuffling around. The only time they seem to be quiet is when they’re asleep but even then they snort if they move. I think the noises is one of the most endearing aspects of pigs. In the same way I can happily sit amongst our flock of chickens whilst they gently cluck and scrape the ground looking for insects and worms I could equally sit for hours, although sadly I never have enough time, with our pigs.
The pigs hearing and sight is not great. In fact it is very easy to walk right up to them when asleep or sunbathing and then rattle the bucket of food. The pandemonium that then ensues is extremely funny to watch but it is always Lola that screams the loudest and for the longest, typical woman! Oinky, the Gloucester Old Spot is the most placid of the three and is the quietest. Incidentally I meant to say the other week that Neale donated an old netball to the pigs for them to play with. He had been told that they liked to play with a ball. Either they can’t see it or he’s been given duff information. They’ve tried eating it but apart from that there’s been absolutely no interest. Ronaldo’s safe for a while!!
Crisping up nicely
The last week has been boiling with that rare British phenomenon, a heatwave. We realise that the one little hawthorn shrubby tree is not really sufficient to provide adequate shade for our three rare breed piggies. This autumn we will plant a small copse in one corner of their field and also several large fruit trees which for future generations of pigs will vastly improve the surroundings and provide interest for them. The Tamworth, Berkshire and Gloucester Old Spot have been coping as best they can by rolling in the sand and dirt and sleeping under their hawthorn for longer periods. To make it more comfortable for them we’ve taken to filling their water tub till overflowing and then continuiing to run the hose until a small piggie swimming pool develops. This project was helped along by Tallulah, the Berkshire who seemed particularly keen on digging a small hole just by where the water tub is. Needless to say the piggies were delighted with their new facility and have spent quite a lot of time during the day just sitting or lying in their muddy pool.
I can’t begin to tell you the sadness you feel when the culmination of the whole project has to come to its awful conclusion as far as the living creatures are concerned. After writing last weeks blog Neale announced on Monday that he had booked our three rare breed pigs in at the very reputable small abattoir in Leintwardine for the 7th July, today. So I delayed writing the blog until I had said my farewells. It is incredibly hard to not feel a huge twinge of sadness and betrayal when you send animals you personally cared for to their deaths. I know as soon as we receive the three carcases and heads I will be fascinated to follow the butchery which is being done by our wonderful Dukeshill butcher Glyn. But right now I’m not happy because I really will miss them. Just like the wonderful Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall I have fallen in love with all things pig. I was already a huge fan because of what we can do with a pig here at Dukeshill but the actual pig keeping was a whole new experience.
Loading them onto the immaculate trailer we had hired wasn’t too hard despite Lola making a getaway across the chickens’ field. After a circuit she was exhasted so thankfully resorted to a huge troughful of food cleverly placed at the back of the trailer. Oinky, the Gloucester Old Spot, true to his breeds nature was the first to get in and just calmly walked straight into the trailer, followed by the sprightly Lola. Tallulah, the Berkshire, true to form wasn’t having any of it and took ages to coax in however her greediness got the better of her and finally she just had to get to the trough.
Interestingly after Neale had confirmed the kill date with the abattoir he then estimated their weights by measuring their length and girth. He had been told that pigs kept for just three months from weaners i.e. 6 months old would weigh about 55-60 kilos. Imagine his surprise and mine when we discovered that Tallulah the Berkshire was a whopping 84 kilos, Lola the Tamworth about 75 kilos, and Oinky the Gloucester Old Spot 63 kilos. We await the unkind comments from the abattoir when they say they are possibly the fattiest pigs they have come across. I suspect it might have been something to do with all those treacle puddings!
At least our rare breed piggies had a wonderful short life. Yesterday I passed a lorry on the M6 going through spaghetti junction with pigs crammed inside and I can guarantee ours in their Rolls Royce style trailer had a far nicer end than those poor pigs. As sad as I am today I don’t regret the experience at all. R.I.P. Tallulah, Lola and Oinky.
Berkshire, Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spot Pork
I’ve got to admit that it took about a month after their slaughter before I felt like eating any of them. When their carcasses returned from the abattoir I was a little upset, especially as it was still obvious who was who. I remember when I was working at the Malton Bacon Factory back in the eighties I started working in the lairage for the first month and as a result I couldn’t eat any pork for that month. It was the association with a living animal that makes it so hard, and especially when you’ve got to know them so well. As before it was bacon that got me back on track again!
The overriding issue with all three animals has been the enormous amount of fat. How they had enough muscle to support themselves I do not know but Neale and I realise that we severely messed up with the balanced feeding programme. I suspect it was all those treacle puddings. With our next batch of pigs we will be much stricter with what we give them. All three types have tasted delicious but as we still haven’t compared them side by side it is difficult to say, hand on heart, which of the three has the best flavour. Glyn, our Dukeshill butcher, whose opinion I value highly particularly enjoyed the Tamworth shoulder joint we gave him saying it was one of the best pieces of pork he had tasted. Considering he has been in the pig trade for 45 years it must be good. One of the things I’ve noticed with all three types is the skin crackles exceptionally well. Also the fat has that lovely slight yellow tinge to it and every cut has been meltingly tender.
The faggots Neale and Glyn produced using their hearts and livers and lungs (lights as they are known in the trade) and the caul fat were absolutely delicious. They produced about 72 faggots from the three pigs based on our Dukeshill recipe. Neale and Glyn also produced sausages using the intestines, minced pork and fat, chorizo and flitches of bacon (which we have now hanging in our larder) and dry cured several of the legs resulting in delicious York ham. We were also left with numerous joints and chops, belly, tenderloin, ribs, kidneys, trotters. Not one bit of each pig was wasted, we felt we owed them that much with the exception of the heads and obviously the blood as we weren’t present at the killing. Neale really didn’t like seeing the heads of his three pigs bobbing up and down in the curing brine looking up at him, it was too much to bear so the brawn never got made! Hugh Fearnley-Whittingshall would be horrified with us.
At the moment I’m trying out several recipes to use up the pork so I will report back on those in due course but I do think that for a superior flavour, when it comes to unalduterated pork, free range, rare breeds such as ours take some beating. Less so with dry cured hams and sausages etc. where the subtle flavour is masked by the salt in the case of the ham and seasoning in the case of the sausages. In fact the commercial breeds of pig are better suited for the dry cured hams we make at Dukeshill in terms of conformity. I know we would get numerous complaints about the fattiness of the hams if we were to use these breeds (even when fed correctly!) and as I’ve just said the flavour differences would be indistinguishable.