We started keeping pigs in January. We had often talked about getting pigs, with the usual pattern being that Becky would suggest that we should have some and I would tell her that we don’t have enough space, and we should get something more manageable first. Ironic, then, that pigs ended up being our first animals (not counting cats – they are pets), and that it was me that ended up taking the first steps.
We had realised that our orchard, which had become more of a meadow with some trees in it, would be extremely difficult to clear of grass, brambles and other weeds. We weren’t going to be able to realise our plans to have a large vegetable plot there unless we could solve this problem. We didn’t want to use chemical weedkillers, and Becky’s dad’s rotavator hadn’t proved up to the job of cutting through turf this thick. You can get an idea of how bad it was from the picture below.
We met Veronica and Jo at a town fete, where they had a stall selling various kinds of meat, including that from their berkshire pigs, and I quizzed them about what was involved in keeping them. We quickly realised that it wasn’t as big an undertaking as all that, and that we had enough land. More importantly, perhaps, the pigs would make short work of clearing the land, destroying any vegetation smaller than a tree. It began to look like a plan.
As it happened, we were able to help Jo and Veronica out in return. Their land had become horribly waterlogged by heavy rainfall over winter, while ours was relatively dry. We took four of their weaners – twice as many as we had originally planned – and kept them on our land for a couple of months. Normally you’d take new weaners at 2 months old, but at 4 months old these were much larger animals, and within a week they had already ripped up much of the turf.
Our first set of pigs were with us through a ridiculously rainy period. Going out to feed them was an exercise in desperately trying to keep our boots on our feet as the sucking mud attempted to claim them. Keeping the food dry enough for them to eat it was a challenge, too – normally you just scatter the food on the ground so they can root around for it, but this wasn’t an option here. For much of the time we fed them out of a couple of old bin lids, which just about worked, though in their enthusiasm to get to the food they would frequently tip a fair bit of it into the mud.
The pigs themselves seemed not to like the rain very much, and were frequently indoors. At the time we put that down to the fact they had been literally brought up in a barn, but we have subsequently discovered with the second lot of pigs that they actually spend quite a lot of time sleeping, and presumably just preferred sleeping indoors rather than in a giant swamp.
One rather charming aspect of having pigs is how sociable they are. They travel around the pen in a group; you rarely see one on its own. A common experience when we come out to feed them or just visit and see how they’re doing is for a single piggy face to pop out, but invariably the other two will scramble to follow. They even like to chase each other around the pen. They follow us around, too (for obvious reasons) and aren’t shy about nibbling on our wellington boots or even (as I discovered this morning) on my trousers. Having said that, it isn’t all rainbows and sunbeams; our pigs fought over food, shoving and biting to get the best spot. That was when they were havig to crowd together to get the food out of two bin lids – perhaps just a side-effect of feeding in a confined space, therefore.
We are now a month into our second lot of pigs. We have expanded the pen in the hopes that they will work their magic on a corner of our garden that has become quite infested with brambles. This time we have a group of three, and at 2 months old they are much smaller than the last lot. So small in fact that I was able to carry them from the car to their pen when they first arrived. (You carry them by the back legs, as otherwise they would easily wriggle free.)
The new gang have got straight to work digging up the expanded pen. They don’t seem to be making a lot of impact on the brambles yet, but they are still quite small and have only been in for three weeks. They are enjoying having the brambles there, though – they have dug a system of tunnels through the undergrowth, and have got so far in that when they go inside you can’t see them at all, prompting occasional panics that they might have escaped. They also enjoy the craters that their predecessors made which, now it’s hot and sunny, make excellent wallows for them, and the logs we left in there for them to scratch themselves on.
Keeping pigs really hasn’t turned out to be all that much work. There was a big push at the start when we had to build the house and so forth, and every time we get a new group in we have to strim any plant life around the fence that has grown in the interim (which will otherwise short it out). We feed them twice a day and top up their water; we change the electric fence battery and refresh their bedding once a week. We also need to regularly patrol the fence to check for any grass or other weeds getting tall enough to short out the fence. That’s about it.
It isn’t a cheap hobby. Obviously, you need land, and you need enough money to pay for housing and fencing. We spent about £700 in total setting up, which covered all the components to a pig ark large enough for 8 pigs (we saved a little by assembling it ourselves), fence posts and wire for the electric fence, a couple of recycled car batteries, an energiser and a recharger. We also put in an electricity and water supply to the far end of the garden to save us carrying batteries and water back and forth (not included in the £700). Of course, there’s also day-to-day costs like feed, but because we have so far had our pigs on loan, we haven’t yet had to pay for this. Our pigs eat Dodson and Horrell sow & weaner pencils, supplemented significantly by grazing as well as waste from our vegetable plot (you can’t feed them anything that’s been in a kitchen, but as long as you do any trimming on site before taking it in, all is well – and they love weeds too). We expect that over time these costs will be paid back to us in delicious pork (and perhaps in time money paid by customers wishing to have delicious pork).
I get a lot of surprised reactions from people when they discover we keep pigs, and even more so when I tell them we kill and eat them. Indeed, when we gave away sausages and chops to our neighbours earlier this year one of them almost turned it down, saying “it wouldn’t feel right”. Almost all of those expressing shock at the idea are meat-eaters themselves, who seem content with the idea of eating a battery-farmed chicken or pork chop but shocked by raising an animal yourself in comfortable conditions and humanely killing and eating them after they have had a happy life.
For myself, I couldn’t be happier about it. If you eat meat then I think there’s an obligation to try and make sure that the animals have been well-treated, and I don’t see how you could do much better than looking after them yourself. Our pigs seem pretty darn happy to me, and I’m confident you won’t get a better welfare standard anywhere else.
Looking ahead, we plan to continue having pigs for the forseeable future. We still have land to clear, but even when that’s finished we’ve enjoyed it enough that we intend to carry on. We will probably move beyond the “pigs on loan” way of doing things to buy our own weaners and sell them to paying customers. Perhaps we’ll even experiment with different pig breeds.
I have to admit, I never thought we would get pigs but now that we have, I’ve no regrets. It’s hard to believe we’ve only had them for 6 months. In that time they’ve become quite a fixture. It’s now much harder to imagine not having pigs.