Louise Gray on why rare breed pigs are not only best in terms of taste and animal welfare, but they preserve our farming heritage
I hate to anthropomorphise, but there is surely nothing happier than a pig rooting around in the mud?
The Tamworth pigs bred by Tim Wilson, founder of The Ginger Pig, certainly look happy digging up the turf and snuffling through straw at Grange Farm in Yorkshire. Fields of pigs living in little domes are now a common site in the British countryside, but when Tim started in the 1970s, the industry was going in the other direction. Pigs were being brought inside and rare breeds like the Tamworth were dying out. The hardy pig, with its trademark ginger hair, was considered simply too slow-growing for the modern industry. At one point there were so few left that it was feared the breed would go extinct.
Between 1900 and 1973, 26 native breeds died out in the UK, including the sheeted Somerset cow, and the Dorset gold tip pig. It is not just the charming names we have lost but the character, look and precious genetics of a unique breed that could come in useful in the future. Today, the Rare Breed Survival Trust actively encourages people to try the meat from ancient breeds like Tamworths, to encourage farmers to keep the family lines alive.
Edge of extinction
When Tim helped bring Tamworth pigs back from the edge of extinction more than 30 years ago people thought he was mad. The animals take eight months to get to slaughter size, compared to 16 to 20 weeks for modern hybrid pigs. But this slow growth does come with advantages. The pigs lay down layers of fat between the muscle as they grow, meaning the meat is more flavoursome and tender.
There are other positives with Tamworths, apart from its charming personality. With their thick skin and wiry hair, the pigs are happy to live outdoors all year round, and the sows are good mothers. As the public became more interested in high welfare animals, Tim was able to develop extensive outdoor systems. Today he also breeds Berkshire and Gloucester old spot pigs on his Yorkshire farm.
Tim has also been able to take advantage of the fashion for nose-to-tail eating. The Ginger Pig has always used every part of the pig and offers cuts like tail, trotter and cheeks, as well as belly, loin and of course bacon. At the Borough Market stall, butchers on site will make up unusual cuts for customers on the spot.
Pork is our most versatile meat, allowing chefs to create myriad dishes, from pig’s head terrine to chorizo. It is also the domestic animal that is most respected in our culture for its intelligence. For more than 7,000 years, we have lived closely with the pig using it for food, clothes and even medical products.
Unfortunately, we seem to have lost that respect in recent years. Most bacon in this country comes from pigs reared intensively abroad. In my book The Ethical Carnivore I investigated factory farms in Denmark. Pigs are slaughtered at four months and live in bare pens indoors. The pigs I saw looked bored, with nothing to play with. In comparison, the animals rooting around in the mud on Tim’s farm look ‘happy’. When it also means that the meat tastes better and the breed is protected for another generation, who cares if I am anthropomorphising?