For the past 18 months we have been keeping pigs and learning lots along the way! It is a venture / journey that we are delighted to have undertaken; our rotund friends have added so much to school life, student wellbeing and Outdoor Work lessons.
One of the driving forces behind the decision to keep pigs is to offer students a very real experience of the ‘farm to fork’ process. Having pigs at Bedales has allowed us to examine the entire life cycle, from ‘conception to digestion’ – a process not everyone is comfortable with. Some have found the idea of the pigs going for meat upsetting, which is understandable. Such differences of opinion have been welcome, and led to interesting discussions about vegetarianism, veganism, animal welfare and the importance of informed choices.
I’ve been delighted that over the last year several parents, students and neighbours have taken Bedales bred pigs home to rear themselves. The stories below speak volumes, and if you are interested in doing the same, please do get in touch via email or phone on the contact details below. We will have two litters of Oxford Sandy and Blacks crossed with Vietnamese Pot Bellies available at the end of April, once they are about 8 weeks old. Crossing these two breeds is not something we have heard of elsewhere – so if you want to get in early on a (possibly) entirely new variety of pig, you know what to do! We also have a litter of pure bred Oxford Sandy and Blacks available at roughly the same time.
– By Andrew Martin, Head of Outdoor Work. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org / 07786381427
Neil is a Bedales parent. He was one of the first people to buy pigs from us, taking two Oxford Sandy and Black gilts from us back in autumn 2015.
Nearing the end of a three-year stint working in the US, my family and I started to think about living a semi self-sufficient lifestyle. We’d lived in suburban Surrey before going to the US, but now we fancied the idea of growing vegetables, keeping some livestock and being surrounded by more open space. We also thought it important that our kids had a better idea of where their food comes from and what good animal welfare looks like. We also wanted the kids to experience rearing animals in as natural an environment as possible, where they are able to enjoy their natural desire to forage or graze on open pasture free from harm and fed only on natural, organic feed.
So, following our return to the UK, the hunt was on for somewhere we could set up a smallholding. After a two-year search, we found a place in the South Downs National Park. It’s a long commute into the City for me (an hour and 45 minutes), but the location is worth it.
Our first attempt to keep livestock didn’t quite match the rural dream. I bought a dozen Orpington chickens, but unfortunately they all began to die one by one until there were only two left, without a single egg laid. Apparently they had contracted a rare avian disease. Undaunted, we tried again with six hens from a more standard breed, but this time a fox paid a visit and that did for most of them too. We now have 6 hens all of different and rare varieties, but now the hen house is more secure than one of her Majesty’s prisons and they seem to be doing very well and increasingly producing more eggs.
Our next livestock introduction was partly born out of the need to control 11 acres of paddock, which grows rapidly from spring onwards. I had always liked the old and rare English breeds so acquired 9 pure bred Hampshire Down sheep with the intention of rearing organically sourced lamb for family and friends. I’ve learnt to shear the sheep with mixed results – initially they didn’t look too smart – and been introduced to the importance of keeping a sheep’s backside clean (known as dagging, or clipping off the dried dung) for fear of ‘fly strike’.
Unfortunately one thing that other shepherds told me is that sheep possess a suicidal gene and will go to extreme lengths to try to kill themselves if you give them the slightest opportunity. One of mine launched itself into the air and rammed its head into a corrugated iron hut while I was trimming its hooves, splitting its face wide open. My wife is a doctor and our first thought was for her to suture the wound, but we didn’t have any sutures in the house. A vet was called and 20 minutes later the sheep was stitched up. All well we thought – until the sheep dropped dead in the field two weeks later.
Last year my kids came home from school and told me that Andrew in Outdoor Work had some piglets for fattening up. With a bit of extra work on the fencing we had about 3 acres of enclosed woodland that make the perfect pig habitat. So we acquired 2 beautiful gilts from Andrew, predictably named Pinky and Perky. They’re Oxford Sandy and Blacks which are quite sociable animals: they will follow you around, but they can give you a nasty little nip if they get too excited. They were surprisingly easy to keep, once we had the adlib feeder in place. They really only needed checking once a day to ensure they hadn’t made an escape bid. The hopper for the food needed topping up weekly and their bedding changing every other week. The whole family thought they were a delight to keep and great to just watch foraging around, and boy could they shift it if they decided to get a bit of speed up. They would even come to you from the other side of the wood if you called for them by name – it’s true what they say about pigs being smart!
The difficulty came at slaughter time. I had to force this one through the family committee as the rest of the team didn’t want them to be killed and couldn’t begin to contemplate eating them…
I swear to this day that the kids went and told Pinky and Perky that when they saw me with the trailer to run for it. It took me 4 hours to get them into that trailer on that fateful rainy day last September, but by the end of that week Bowtell’s butchers had delivered a chest-freezer full of different flavoured sausages, pork joints, ribs and big fat pork chops.
It took some persuasion to get the kids to consider eating that first sausage but after that they have never looked back. Now nothing is as good as Pinky or Perky!
Having a small-smallholding involves periods of intense activity, but on a day-to-day basis, the animals can be fed and watered using automatic food hoppers and water troughs. Although you can’t just leave them to their own devices, I check on them every evening when I get home. It’s something that is completely different from my day job: I like the variety and I get to pootle about on my own John Deere Tractor – not much wrong with that!
Brian Ellis is one of our neighbours. Last summer he bought two of our nine- week old Oxford Sandy and Blacks…
Pigs were first domesticated by man several thousand years ago, and have remained by his side ever since. The pig, being such an adaptable omnivore, has subsequently adapted to man’s changing environment. With its ability to ingest almost anything remotely edible it has fitted easily into the lives of farmers and families.
As farming methods have evolved and become more industrial, the production of pork has changed. It is reported that 70% of the pigs killed in Britain each year are intensively farmed and that only 30% of the pork eaten in this country actually comes from British pigs.
To ensure that the pork we eat is of good quality and comes from pigs that have been well cared for, it is necessary to either buy the meat from a good quality butcher or from small-scale or free-range pig keepers. If, however, you want to be sure that you are eating the best pork possible, from high-welfare pigs, then the safest way is to raise pigs yourself.
I first tried this approach about 10 years ago and have had three pairs of sows over the subsequent years. On each occasion the pigs were sourced locally and were kept in a large free-range paddock. In our latest venture we sourced a pair of gilts (young female pigs) from Bedales. The breed was Oxford Sandy and Black (a breed of domestic pig originating in Oxfordshire. Named for its colour, which is a base of sandy brown with black patches, the breed is also sometimes called the “Plum Pudding” or “Oxford Forest pig”. Related to the old Berkshire and Tamworth breeds, it is one of the oldest pigs native to Britain.).
The pigs were kept until about 7 months old when it was suggested that we should opt for a home slaughter rather than putting the pigs through the trauma of a road trip and the stress of an abattoir. This was carried out by a licensed slaughterman in a peaceful manner that was both humane and respectful.
Keeping pigs has been a very rewarding experience for the whole family, regardless of age. It has offered an insight into animal welfare and husbandry, introduced us to the cycle of life, and increased our knowledge about the origins of our food. It has also highlighted the need for land management and the significance of sustainability.
The pigs are intelligent, friendly, and fit in well with family and local life. This represents a tradition going back centuries, involving individuals and communities. Indeed we have subsequently joined the Outdoor Work department at Bedales in making very tasty sausages and bacon! We are currently trying to prepare some air-dried ham.
Home production of pork is both rewarding and fulfilling. It is also educational, creating food products which would be hard to source elsewhere.
Jonny is a Bedales parent. In December we helped his wife Helen ‘hide’ the two surprise Mangalese piglets she bought for him for Christmas…
Christmas morning, blindfolded and bewildered, half the family were driven by the other half of the family, around in circles on a magical, mystery tour that ended in front of a small stable. The incumbents were not horses, but two small woolly piglets who snorted as we approached.
Surprise present indeed! My wife, Helen, did look a little worried, unsure how we might react, faced with the tangible reality of her oh-so-humorous little jape. “Can we really do this?” she asked. The answer must have been written across my face. “I can take them back,” she confided quietly.
The consequences of what she had done were clearly beginning to hit home. Although, even then, she couldn’t possibly have imagined what the next few months had in store…
I guess it was my fault really. I’ve been going on for years about the amazing Pitt Cue restaurant. It specialises in slow cooked Mangalitsa pork, from Hungarian cross bred wild boars, which produce a highly marbled, fatty meat that is simply to die for – on both sides!
Back home, we immediately gave them names. Apparently that’s the wrong thing to do, especially when coloured with the bluster and bravado of inexperience. The cream one is called Mayo because we’ll eat him with Mayonnaise. The reddy one is called Barbie because that is how we’ll cook him. Yes, we will. Honestly…
My friends look on sceptically, doubtful that we will have the necessary resolve come ‘M’ day. Pigs can live about 20 years if you try hard enough. They are clearly expecting them to still be there when I retire! Helen is more directly threatening and calls them Breakfast and Lunch!
Since Christmas, it’s all been a bit mad. The last animal I had was a rabbit called Blackie when I was eight. He never got to be that old and we buried him in the garden after he was attacked by a cat a few weeks later. So, animal husbandry is not really my thing!
Nevertheless, we have now rebuilt sheds to house the pigs and invented insanely clever stalls from pallets to feed them, and trapped buckets in tyres to water them. We’ve scoured the back shelves of country stores we previously never knew were there, bought gadgets we never knew existed and begged leftover veggies from the fruit and veg shop we’ve never visited. We’ve faced multiple electrocutions building fences that the pigs blindly ignore. We’ve chased them desperately across the fields and watched helplessly as they devour the precious daffodils in our back garden. Worse, we’ve been rung up by neighbours who’ve watched helplessly as they devour the precious daffodils in their back gardens, before bravely leading them back home through the lanes, rattling buckets of cheerios in front of them. We’ve been covered in poo from hugging them to measure their growth (the pigs that is, not the neighbours) and stared in disbelief as the ground inside the pen becomes not just muddy, but a seething mass of sickly sweet, welly-gobbling gloop.
There are more delights in store, I’m certain. Not least as we confront our own demons to organise for their premeditated murder. Before stacking the freezers that we don’t yet own, with 150 kilos of unidentified meat, in unrecognisable frozen blocks.
What’s for lunch Dad? Errr I’m not entirely sure, kids. It might be a nice shoulder, or some ribs, although it might just be a heart, or even a brain. We’ll just have to see, once it’s cooked! Chin up!
So, the gift that keeps giving – if your partner ever suggests it, I couldn’t recommend it less! My advice is to run for the hills and threaten divorce…
Either that or you can happily adopt my wonderful, resourceful son, Carter. And then get the amazing Andrew Martin to guide you at every step with sanguine advice and practical help that will turn any desperate situation into a joyful experience, a font of inspirational, funny stories and a source of life-enhancing joy!