Amid the doom and gloom of the credit crunch, and as institutions collapse around us, there are glimmers of hope as more and more people decide to go it alone and become more self-sufficient. A couple of years ago the veg. plot took off – 2008 saw sales of vegetable seeds exceed those of flowers for the first time in 50 years - and a growing number of people are now keeping hens.
But speaking as someone whose Christmas lunch was the most delicious home-reared roast pork with unctuous crackling aplenty, I am truly thrilled that more and more people are now thinking of rearing a couple of porkers. On so many fronts raising pigs is a winner. It's really not difficult, it's incredibly rewarding, it'll reduce waste and food miles, provide you with unimaginably delicious pork and even make you money if you can bring yourself to sell some of your produce.
The easiest way to start your pig-keeping enterprise is to buy a couple of weaners (piglets that are six to eight weeks old and have just left their mum) in the spring. Feed them through the summer, and slaughter them in the autumn.
Before you acquire any pigs you'll need to make a stock-proof plot with suitable accommodation and also sort out the paperwork.
• Two pigs will live happily in a small area – about half a tennis court would be plenty - but beware: they will wreck it. Wherever you put them, your pigs will effectively rotovate and manure the plot, great if you're looking to bring a patch of thistles and brambles back into cultivation, not so great if it's part of your lawn.
• The easiest and cheapest way of keeping them in will be to use an electric fence. When they first arrive – as Jack Russell-sized babies - you'll need to train them to understand how it works. To do this, make a temporary pen and set the electric fence up within the pen – a single strand about 10” off the ground will do the job. This way, when they get their first shock, they can't run through the fence and head for the hills. Very soon they'll learn not to go near and then you can build your final pen.
• They will need some sort of shelter from rain and sun. You could buy a proper pig ark but a homemade effort made from posts and corrugated iron or an old garden shed will do equally well, as long as it is sturdy. You'll need to put some straw in their house and, unlike most animals, pigs are scrupulously clean so you won't need to clean it out.
• They will also require a supply of fresh clean water. Because they have a very annoying habit of pushing over buckets and anything light, use an old butler's sink or secure your bucket in a car tyre. During a hot summer your pigs will also need a muddy wallow to cool down in. You can make this by chucking a couple of buckets of water in the same spot, topping it up whenever it dries out.
• Finally, the dreaded paperwork! Before you bring those piggies home you will have to get to grips with the rules and regulations that come with the territory. The first step is to contact Defra (Department of Food and Rural Affairs) who will allocate you a CPH (County/Parish/Holding) number for your land. You will then need to contact the Animal Health Division at your local Trading Standards Office to obtain your herd mark (another number!) and you'll save yourself a job if you can ask for your weaners to be tagged when you buy them as they'll need identification when they go off for slaughter.
Now you're ready to go...
• To begin with you need to consider what type of pigs you want. I may be biased but I would recommend you go for a traditional coloured breed rather than a commercial pink pig. Not only are they far hardier and designed for outdoor living but they are also far more docile and, of course, the pork will taste better. There are many native breeds to choose from such as the Gloucester Old Spot (very big and makes fantastic bacon), Tamworth (beware, rather athletic) and Saddleback and all have their individual characteristics.
• We chose Berkshires, partly as they are very easy (sometimes referred to as the Labradors of the pig world) and because they are renowned for producing the very best crackling. We're also in lofty company, as P.G. Wodehouse's famous prize-winning sow, the Empress of Blandings, was a Berkshire pig.
• A traditional weaner will cost you about £6 for every week i.e. an eight-week piglet will cost £48. You may be asked if you want boars (boys) or gilts (females), either would be fine as they will have gone to a higher place before they reach sexual maturity, but if there's any chance they might end up as more permanent members of your household then opt for girls.
• Weaners are often advertised for sale in papers like the Friday Ad or Wealden Advertiser; they can also be purchased through Ashford and Hailsham livestock markets or visit The British Pig Association website which lists breeders for each breed.
• When you collect your weaners they will be quite tiny and will easily fit in a puppy cage in the back of your car – though put down plenty of newspaper first.
• Pigs are very easy to care for and they really won't take up a lot of your time – apart from the hours wasted watching them! Quite literally pigs will eat ANYTHING, and while Defra rules ban you from feeding any waste food, seasonal gluts like windfall apples and courgettes will be gratefully received. At the moment ours are crunching their way through barrow loads of Jerusalem artichokes which grow in abundance at Coopers Farm but, due to their unfortunate side effects, can only be eaten by the humans in moderation. In addition you will need pig food purchased from agricultural and country stores. The weaners will need about 1/2kg a day for every month of their age e.g.1kg a day when you first get them at eight weeks rising to about 3kg by late autumn. In total you'll probably get through about 300kg+.
• Each day you also need to check their water and generally cast an eye over them to make sure all is well. Outdoor pigs are generally very hardy and with young weaners you'll be very unlucky to encounter any health issues. It's worth noting that pigs' tails are only curly when they are well happy, so if yours look listless with straight tails then something is wrong.
• The time will come when you'll need to send your pigs off to the butcher. This is not an exact science, and beginners should be wary of letting them get too fat, but by the autumn (6/7months) they should be ready. In addition to killing them, the abattoir at Heathfield (Tottingworth Farms 01435 862425) will also collect your pigs and butcher them for you, so they leave home on four legs and come back as sausages.
Finally you probably want some idea of the costs involved. Ignoring the capital one-off costs like housing and fencing, you will eat very good, very cheap pork or make money if you sell the meat. There are, of course, very many variables but as a rough idea: two weaners £90; about 300kg pig food apprx £100; to kill and butcher two pigs apprx £80 (collection and sausage making are extra) = £270. Your two pigs should easily produce about 40kg sellable meat per pig, which at £6/kg = £480. It won't pay the mortgage but will provide a great deal of pleasure along the way!
If you would like to purchase Coopers Farm woodland-reared Berkshire pork visit the Stonegate Farmers' Market on the 2nd Saturday of every month or its available direct from the farm firstname.lastname@example.org or 01580 200386.