I have two passions in life that are mutually exclusive: I love cities and I love pigs.
From the second I was born in Charing Cross Hospital, I absorbed the London pollution deep into my being. I am unashamedly London-centric: I come out in a rash if I leave Zone 2 and brief forays beyond the M25 Orbital Motorway leave me screaming to return to the noise, the crowds and the energy of the city.
But somewhere along the way, I developed a great fondness for and delight in pigs. Of course, pigs live on farms in rural idylls, snuffling around in grassy fields and rooting through mud. The idea of having them in a city environment is preposterous and heavens, what would one’s neighbours think? But I have never been unduly troubled by convention and who is to say that my neighbours will not share in my porcine admiration? However, I do firmly believe, that if you are going to care for and look after an animal, be it a dog, cat, weasel or pig, it must have a good living environment and be properly cared for at all times.
At the age of seventeen, I found that my school timetable left me with every Wednesday to myself. I cannot recall what prompted me to contact Mr. Organ at his pig farm on the outskirts of Cheltenham but whilst my friends spent the middle of every week, poring over books in the library and staring vacantly at blackboards, I donned a pair of nasty, denim drainpipes, stuck on a pair of Wellington boots and strode forth through the farm gates into the midst of 1500 pigs. I was posh, naive, had never worked on a farm before and found myself as happy as a proverbial pig in shit from the first day I started.
My co-workers were less than impressed. The foreman’s eyes bulged when well-modulated vowels came pouring out of my mouth and the farm boys declared that I spoke “like the lady who reads the news on the telly”. I, on the other hand, strained to understand their thick Joe Grundy accents and found myself smiling and nodding without understanding half what was said to me. Having said that, I do remember with frightening clarity, the foreman’s instructions to all his lads that there was to be “no hanky-panky in the haystacks”. Incredulous at the thought that I might be of any use in a farm environment, the foreman handed me a pig board and told me to herd two dozen gilts into a barn. It wasn’t rocket science: I grasped the plastic handle, blocked the pigs as they veered from left to right, cut them off, herded them forwards, shouted encouragement and they were in. I was rewarded with a “well, lass, you’re not too bad”, handed a shovel and pointed at a heap of dung.
And from that point on, I became a dedicated pigophile.
Jump forward twenty years and I cannot believe that I have willingly forced myself out of my comfort zone by 7.15am on a Sunday morning. But by my own volition, early on Sunday 15 May, I am well beyond the M25 and heading South on the M3 in the direction of Chitterne in Wiltshire. The metropolis is far behind me and I leave the motorway at Junction 8 to swoop along the A303 in the direction of Stonehenge. It is a perfect morning for riding a bike: blue sky, golden sun, no traffic and long, straight roads for mile upon mile. However I haven’t worn enough clothes under my leathers and am beginning to get a bit chilly. I try to ward off the cold by steering deliberately into the sunny lane of the dual carriageway and turning my thoughts to the joys of the day ahead.
I am going into the deepest darkest countryside to spend the day at Pig Paradise Farm. Run by Tony York and Carron McCann, this is the perfect place for learning everything there is to know about keeping pigs. Tony and Carron’s business embraces rare pigs, which they sell for meat, breeding and as pets. There are a fantastic variety of animals to see: Mangalitzas, a breed that resembles a pig crossed with a sheep; Large Black Lop Eared pigs who do have eyes but you’re hard pressed to find them as their ears provide the most perfect blindfolds; Tamworths, lean and handsome with short ginger hair and commanding snouts and the breed that I am interested in, Kune Kunes.
Kune Kune pigs are indigenous to New Zealand but were first imported into Britain nearly twenty years ago. Kune means “fat and round” and Kune Kune means “very fat and round”. They have bristly hair, a piri piri under their chins, which is a sort of goatee beard of fat that hangs down and squashed snouts. A Kune is a perfect pet: docile, friendly and relatively small.
Victoria Beckham has a lot to answer for on many levels but particularly for promoting the idea of “micro” pigs. The suggestion that a pig can be small enough to fit in your handbag (and let’s face it, why would you want a pig in your handbag? I struggle to find my keys and Oyster card as it is without the added complication of trotters in the way), is absurd. Of course when piglets are first born, they are tiny. So too are human babies. And yes, at the age of a few weeks you could fit a piglet in with your purse, tissues, travel pass, make-up, loose change, biros and cigarettes if you were so inclined. As you could with human babies. After all, my mother carried me around in a brown wicker basket with our family Pekinese for the first few months of my life but she would be hard pressed to do so now. I have grown. And so do pigs. Kunes are the “micro” pig of the porcine world but I have watched my huge bear of a husband felled by a Kune who just sidled up to him and leant on him for a gentle scratch. They may be small compared to a British Saddleback but they are not going to be gliding down Piccadilly with you in your Gucci handbag.
The course is run in the Village Hall of Chitterne, which stands right beside the church. By the time I arrive, my lips are blue with cold and I down coffee in a slightly demented way, sitting huddled in my thermals and leathers until my body temperature rises. The other people on the course mill around and Tony and Carron introduce us all.
Robert and Sarah are back doing the course for the second time as they are on the brink of opening their own venture, keeping pigs for meat. Anne has driven down from the North to learn about keeping pigs for breeding and has persuaded her sister, Helen, to keep her company. Andy and Sue have bought a smallholding and are there to learn all the ins and outs of pig keeping and Graham has bought Sue the Pig Paradise Experience as a birthday present. Sue is a serious pigophile, having over forty ceramic pigs at home and sporting a piggy t-shirt and pink wellington boots to match.
The day is to be divided up into talking about pigs, looking at pigs and eating pigs. We quickly learn that the number 3 is key to pig keeping: one pig will lose you money, two pigs will make you break even but three will turn you a profit. When a sow is pregnant, her gestation is three months, three weeks, three days, three hours and three glasses of wine and hey presto, piglets on cue!
I feel enormously happy, sitting in the Village Hall, surrounded by friendly pig people and photos of all the different rare breeds. In fact, the countryside doesn’t seem such a bad place after all. Until that is, that Tony explains that Chitterne Village Hall is actually used by the military as a strategic base when it is training new recruits in the art of warfare before deploying them to Afghanistan. Nearby on Salisbury Plain, the army has recreated Basra and Tony says that we shouldn’t be surprised to see “Afghans” pointing AK47s at the windows of the village hall or worry if heat-seeking missiles course through the skies. My ears prick up in anticipation of nearby tracer fire but in fact the church bells begin to chime with gusto and the idyll of the peaceful English village, nestling in the heart of the countryside, is restored.
Tony is talking about the difference between supermarket-bought meat and independently sourced produce. As a member of the smug middle class, I like my food to be organic. The word “organic” on the label always gives me that warm cuddly feeling that the lambs, piglets and calves that I am sticking in my oven, have at least spent a good life, gamboling in fields of buttercups and eating delicious green grass under the eyes of a benevolent farmer. But in fact the word “organic” does not mean that. It just means that the beasts have been fed with “organic” feed and are still raised and slaughtered in distressing industrial conditions and you, as a townie, are being conned, both mentally and financially. Furthermore, when you peer at your packet of bacon that says that it is “British”, if you read down to the next line, you will see that it has actually come from Denmark but that because it was packaged in Britain, we claim it as our own. By now, Townie Toni is really upset: my taste buds have been deceived, I’m out of pocket and I’ve failed to support British farming to boot.
Carron has been a pig farmer for many years and her knowledge of the trade is second to none. She is all too well aware of the type of meat that supermarkets sell and I shall be looking closely at my meat from now on to see if I can see the bruises sustained by animals on their way to the abbatoir or the bite marks that they inflict on one another when they are forced into overcrowded pens. Sausages, hitherto my favourite food, come in for a real pasting. Sausages that you buy in a supermarket, be they cheap chipolatas or the finest that money can buy, are made up of the bits of the pig that are left over after everything else has been harvested. That sausage that you’ve got in your morning sandwich is reconstituted meat from a pig’s ears, lips, cheeks and anus. Its anus? Its anus. Graham had a sausage baguette early this morning. He is looking a bit green about the gills. I think about all the supermarket sausages that I have eaten in my life. I think about the fact that I have left two sausages in the fridge for my daughter to eat at lunchtime. Not only have I abandoned my baby all day in favour of a pig-keeping course but I am feeding her reconstituted anus. I am a terrible mother.
Fortunately at this point, Carron morphs from a wonderfully glamourous hostess into a pig farmer dressed in one of Tony’s lumberjack shirts and plastic waterproof trousers. And we too don boots, protective trousers and coats and sally forth with buckets of nuts across a green field in the direction of the piggies.
First up are the Mangalitza pig-sheep who share space with a Tamworth. They snuffle happily in the mud and the Tamworth makes a big deal of draping herself in her wallow so that her underbelly turns from orange to chocolate brown. Pigs are unable to sweat and so in order to keep cool in the heat, it is essential for them to have a watery wallow so that they can cake themselves in mud to protect themselves from over-heating. There can never be too much muddy water for a pig to lie in and they routinely tip their water buckets into the mud to increase the squelchiness. However their pig ark, which is a triangular Wendy House in the middle of their paddock, is spotless and smells of sweet hay. Despite their reputation for being smelly, pigs are in fact very clean creatures and will never dung or pee in their bedding area. I crawl into their ark and lie in the straw, thinking how comfortable it is and how a quick kip would be just the thing.
Each pig gets fed 3 pounds of nuts twice a day (another example of the number 3 being important for pigs) and Carron explains that it is important to have a call to let the animals know that it is feeding time. Her call is “Trough! Trough! Trough!” and we are to make this call as we go from pig to pig with the food. I fill up a blue tin bucket with nuts and carrying it in one hand and the bucket with the rest of the nuts in the other, slide through the gate to the Mangalitzas and Danni Minogue, the Tamworth. Trilling “Trough! Trough! Trough!” in a voice that closely resembles Joyce Grenfell, I make for their feeding place but as I lean over to deposit my tin of nuts, the Tamworth sticks its snout into the bucket and shoves it violently, attempting to empty the entire contents into just that first paddock. I manage to extricate myself and most of my bucket of nuts and on I go to the two pigs next door.
At the top of the field, a Large Black sow is nursing her week old piglets. Each piglet has its own teat and remains faithful to that teat for as long as it feeds from its mother. The feeding rule for a sow with piglets is more complicated than 3 pounds per pig as the quantity of nuts has to be vastly increased to cater for the work the mother is doing in producing and caring for her babies. I think it is something like 3 pounds plus an extra pound for each piglet but as I know that I shall keep my pigs as pets and not breed from them, I don’t pay proper attention to the feed formula.
Holding out a hand towards a piglet and hoping it will come and say hello is pointless. Pigs are not like dogs. They do not come over when humans are ready to say hello. They come over when they are ready to say hello. It was Winston Churchill who said, “a dog looks up at you, a cat looks down on you but a pig looks you straight in the eye”. Foolishly hopeful, I hold out a hand to the tiny black piglets and sure enough, they skitter in every direction except towards me. So I sit down on the mud and smile at them and slowly, slowly they edge towards me. Before long, I have eight piglets snuffling at my Peter Storm mac, licking my waterproof trousers and tugging at the toggles on both. They pile onto my lap and feel like a moving hot water bottle. Their mother comes over to inspect, but reassured that they are happy with me, snuffles off again, pleased no doubt, that her offspring are giving her a moment’s peace.
We then have a lecture about artificial insemination from Tony, who is waving two long straws at us, one with an alarming corkscrew at the end of it and the other with a squeezy bottle attached. Far better, if you’re aiming to breed, to get your pig pregnant by AI than hire a boar, which is much more costly and not nearly so reliable. I learn that if I should so desire, I can buy three lots of pig sperm for £25.00 and it will be posted to me with maximum discretion. I then take the corkscrew straw, which is so designed because a boar’s penis is corkscrew-shaped and having covered it in KY Jelly, insert it into my sow, who will be extremely happy that this is happening, apparently. With the first straw inserted, the second one is clipped on the end, the squeezy bottle is squeezed and my sow has been serviced. As I say, I shall be having my pigs as pets and not breeding from them so KY Jelly, ersatz corkscrew penises and squeezy bottles will not be on my shopping list.
By this point, I am in dire need of food and am hugely relieved when we are led back to the village hall for a pig feast: delicious pork with the best crackling ever, masses of vegetables and jugs of proper gravy. A quiet descends over the group as we eat happily. Conversation resumes after a bit and just when we are feeling really quite full, Carron produces two magnificent banoffi pies. While we spoon toffee, bananas and cream into our mouths, Tony starts to explain how to avoid vet’s bills and look after your pigs yourself.
I have a lovely vet who looks after my dog for me. She is a genial, knowledgeable, kind woman and I enjoy her company. But with no NHS for pets, the bills are daunting. As she shakes me by the hand, I know that that one handshake has already cost me £25.00, the following sympathetic remarks and analysis of my dog’s ills, another £50.00, the drugs at least £65.00 and the smile and cheery wave goodbye bring the total to at least £200.00 if I’m lucky. I am all for learning how to look after my piggies on my own as much as possible.
The cardinal rule is to vet your pigs twice a day and feed them at the same time, rather than simply chucking food at them and then being appalled when one day, you realize that they are very unwell and a vet must be called. Lunch over, Carron takes us back up to all her pigs and we visit an enormous Black Lop-Eared sow called Cilla Black. We are in the next-door paddock to Cilla, admiring another pig and not yet concentrating on her. Exasperated by the lack of attention in her direction, she stands up on her hind legs, places her trotters firmly on the fence and throws her snout up into the air. In this stance, she is considerably bigger than my husband and even more of a force to be reckoned with than him. Collectively we all swarm towards her. More fool Cilla for seeking our attention. It is Carron’s intention to let each of us practice inserting a needle into Cilla, pretending to inject her, removing the needle and rubbing the puncture wound. We are shown the best place to put the needle in, a soft area near the neck and in fact, Cilla, having been given some nuts to take her mind of things, is completely impervious to our slightly nervous attempts to stick needles into her.
Carron’s next lesson is to teach us how to establish that a boar is a good bet in the mating game. It is essential, Carron informs us that the boar’s testicles are round and bouncy rather than limp and a bit floppy. I can see this: round and bouncy is surely always better than limp and floppy. We approach a sizeable Middle White, called David Beckham. Middle White pigs are not the most beautiful members of the species. They have rather squashed faces and look like a cross between a pug and a vampire bat. But we are not really concerned with the front end. It’s the back end that we’re looking at. Carron suggests to Graham that he invades David Beckham’s personal space and has a feel of his testicles. Graham doesn’t really like pigs. He’s here out of love for his girlfriend. He’s spent a lot of money on the course as a present for her. And now he’s being invited to feel a pig’s testicles? But man that he is, he crouches down behind the Middle White and tentatively edges his hands under his backside, a slight grimace on his face. The testicles are most satisfactory: round, bouncy and moist as well. Good.
Graham’s revenge on Sue comes soon. She has opted to take a pig’s temperature and they don’t hold the thermometers in their mouths. The camera is focused closely on Sue as she gingerly lifts the tail of a young gilt and stares underneath. Is the top hole the anus and the bottom hole the vagina or the top hole the vagina and the bottom hole the anus? All very confusing and yet rather important to be clear on what is what. The correct hole located, the thermometer is inserted and then hastily removed. Too hastily. It has not beeped to indicate that the requisite time has passed to give an accurate reading. Sue must repeat the exercise. So tail up, hole located, thermometer in and then a two-minute wait until the bleep sounds and dignity is restored to both females.
I come off quite lightly on this afternoon of pig husbandry, escaping the more intimate areas and electing instead to learn how to weigh a pig using a piece of orange twine. Apparently if you run the twine from between the pig’s eyes, down its spine to the top of its tail and tie a knot and then measure from one shoulder to the other shoulder, running the twine underneath the piggy and tie another knot, you then add these two figures together and divide by ten and this gives you the pig’s weight to the nearest fifteen pounds. Or you divide the two figures into each other and multiply by ten? Or was it three? Surely it was three? After all, three is the magic number. I attempt to measure the pig on my own after Carron has explained and demonstrated. I am not convinced that I have done it right. Carron has moved on but Robert helps me have another go. I try again. But my knots seem terribly far apart compared to Carron’s. I unknot my twine to try for a third time but the pig is having none of it and dances off to the other end of its paddock. When Snout and Crackling (they may not have been born yet, but my pigs already have names) come to live with me, I shall read up on how to weigh them with a piece of twine, but for now I decide that I would prefer to go and play with the Kune Kune piglets.
The day draws to a close with Victoria Sponge, Fruitcake and tea. I have eaten so much fantastic food that I am unable to do up my leather motorbike trousers and have to ride back to London in my tracksuit and waterproof trousers. But not before, receiving a stern lecture from Tony about money and costings and the expense involved in keeping pigs, a very salutary and important finish to a most excellent day.
I jump on my bike and head off back to the safety of the metropolis. As I ride down the M3, I think about all the things I have learnt. What shall I have as my food call, I wonder? I try calling “Piggy! Piggy! Piggy!” into the dense cotton of my balaclava and then try a series of snorts instead. I sound quite, quite mad.
The house is peaceful when I return home. Theresa is sound asleep and she and Melinda, the babysitter, have had a really good day. She has eaten well, Melinda informs me, although she refused to eat her sausages at lunchtime. Yesterday I would have thought her fussy. Today I think of her as discerning.