"Dogs look up to you, cats look down on you. Give me a pig. He just looks you in the eye and treats you as an equal." - Winston Churchill
I’m with Winston on this one; pigs are easily my favourite animals and I can while away a whole afternoon leaning against Clarissa, my favourite Kunekune, dozing and reading and listening to her snore her way through the hottest part of the day in the shade of the big old oak tree in the corner of her field.
Part of the appeal is that pigs are bright, but straightforward, characters. Their needs are few and yet their interests are extensive; they’re utterly content with plenty of grub and a clean, dry bed but it’s impossible to do any work in their vicinity without drawing their attention.
They’ll gather round to inspect whatever tools you’ve brought for the job in hand before scratching themselves against you as a prelude to searching your pockets for the treats they know you’re concealing. Anyone who is used to a cat curling up on the keyboard as you’re trying to work will understand what I’m talking about but because a pig can weigh a couple of hundred kilograms and has enough flatulence to run a medium-sized wind farm, the problems are amplified. It is also impossible to get a pig to do anything it doesn’t want to do, so if she decides that you are daft enough to put your workspace in exactly the spot she’d previously identified as that day’s snoozing spot then you’re just going to have to suck it up and find somewhere else to work.
This is as charming as it is infuriating. Which, now I come to think of it, sums up pigs rather nicely. They taste good too, which is something I sometimes remind myself of when they’re being even more recalcitrant than usual…
Related: keeping chickens
My pig keeping career started with two Kunekunes, a breed from New Zealand that possess the winning combination of being quite content to eat nothing but grass for the majority of the year, backed up with the most laidback temperament you will ever encounter.
Mine came via the British Kunekune Pig Society as rescue pigs, and were so fat they couldn’t walk without dragging their bellies on the ground. This is never a good look, and is hardly improved by being simultaneously ridiculously hairy and possessing permanently runny noses. However, a summer spent grazing North Walian grass slimmed them both down so that they are now merely overweight, rather than morbidly obese.
Clarissa has, alas, retained her snotty nose and appears to take great pleasure in blowing it against my trousers prior to snaffling down her breakfast. This isn’t a problem when I’m wearing wellies and leggings, but is highly annoying when you’re feeding them in a hurry prior to dashing off somewhere in your Sunday best.
I try and dodge her as best I can, but a hungry pig is surprisingly light on its feet, while a hungry pig that is also in season is surprisingly light on its feet and very, very determined. With my newly grown hipster beard and ever-expanding waistline I’m not sure I can blame her for an honestly held belief that I’m the answer to all her pent-up desires… (Hugh Jackman has much the same effect on Mrs B, it must be noted.)
So the Kunekunes are very much pet pigs, although that might change when I find a charming gentleman to come and live with them, as much to take the heat off me as anything. Rare breed salami and air-dried hams are quite the thing, even in the rural outposts like Llangollen, so a stream of outdoor reared, free-range, organic weaners would provide me with the most wonderfully marbled, dense, dark pork to cure and season and generally obsess over before devouring with a nice home-brewed Porter or elderberry wine.
Are you starting to see why I’m fighting a never-ending battle against obesity?
Until that point, we will restrict ourselves to buying weaners, which are piglets aged around 8-10 weeks, that we then feed on commercial pignuts, an all-in-one, perfectly balanced food.
They go for pork aged around 4-6 months, and bacon at 8-10 months. This enables us to draw a line between getting to know and love our Kunekunes, while benefitting from commercial hybrids like the Welsh/Large White that packs on muscle at an alarming rate while remaining placid enough for you to be able to give ‘em a scratch behind the ear without risking a hand.
The resulting sausage and bacon is sublime and easily the best we’ve ever had. The next pair will go for pork, which I fully expect to taste just as good and give the wonderful bonus of fatty, crisp crackling to serve on the side. We try to time them so that they’re getting near their final weight in the autumn so they can be fed windfall apples, which saves a few pounds in feed and adds a wonderful flavour to the meat.
Tips for keeping pigs
Keeping pigs, as long as you have half-an-acre or so, is simplicity itself. They need plenty of fresh water, and somewhere snug and draught-free to sleep. They aren’t at all fashion conscious, so while I started with a commercial pig arc, I’ve now moved onto building my own from old pallets. They might not look as nice, but they’re almost free, as well as being sturdier and better insulated than a single-skinned tin one.
While Kunekunes will happily subsist on nothing but grass for nine months of the year, other breeds will need to be fed pignuts from a 25kg sack that costs under a tenner, and while the days in which you could legally feed them kitchen scraps are long-gone, you can supplement their diet with the over-ripe fruit and veg that a lot of greengrocers will happily give it away to save the cost of paying to have it disposed of.
Mis-shaped and slug-eaten garden veg is all grist to the mill too, and while the Kunekunes won’t touch the free-ranging hens that share the field with them, other breeds will happily snaffle a slow-moving chicken or duck given half the chance. Pigs are promiscuously omnivorous and not for nothing did old-school gangsters keep a pig-keeper or two on a permanent retainer, just in case a rival needed relocating further down the food chain.
Their waste – which will be deposited in the same area every day; pigs are scrupulously clean animals - can be composted in a separate pile and shovelled onto the garden where it’ll do nothing but good things. Be warned though: it smells to high heaven in the summer, so you’d better have somewhere discrete to pile it, or very understanding neighbours.
Ailments are few and far between, and limited so far to a nasty case of fly strike, a condition where blowflies lay eggs in a scratch or graze. The open wound serves as the ideal nursery for the resulting maggots, which is as horrible as you are imagining it to be.
The cure was to rub a thick layer of petroleum jelly onto the open cut twice a day, which prevents the flies laying their eggs in the wound. It’s an easy cure, but not one you want a coachload of tourists to see you effecting; standing, legs astride a wriggling pig, bellowing “will you bloody stand still” while holding an open pot of Vaseline is a sight that probably haunts them to this day.