Of all pests that can assault a garden, a less common one ispigs. In some states, escaped domestic pigs have become feral and run arounddisruptively. Yet another scenario can simply be a neighbor’s pig (or multiplepigs) deciding your landscape looks infinitely tastier than their own, leadingto pig rooting damage in your garden.
If you’ve ever had to handle pigs in the garden, you knowit’s no joke and might be wondering how to keep pigs out of the garden.
Pigs are highly intelligent but what really motivates themis food. They spend a good portion of their day eating or looking for things toeat. This is where your garden comes into play. Imagine being pigs in a pen.Although getting three square meals a day and plenty of water, they can see andsmell a cornucopia of edible delights just beyond the fence in your garden.
Pigs will eat leaves, trample plants, and dig up roots allwhile damaging trees as they rub against them in their frenzied search for atasty morsel. Pig rooting damage can become so severe that entire areas arerendered bare and unrecognizable. Since even the most intelligent pig can’tread a “no pigs allowed” sign, how do you keep pigs out of the garden and isthere a way to repel them?
A fence is an obvious solution, although the clever animalcan sometimes dig underneath or even push over a fence. An electric fence is abetter option for keeping pigs away from garden areas. A small electric joltwon’t hurt the pigs but does train them rather quickly to avoid the area. Ifelectrifying the fence is a bit extreme, installing a plastic mesh fence aroundthe garden can help deter the pigs. They don’t want to walk through somethingthat they might get tangled up in.
Of course, if you are home when the piggys enter the garden,loud noises made can scare them off, at least temporarily. What if you aren’taround though? Install a motion detector that will emit a stream of water. Thismay scare the pigs off and teach them to avoid your garden, or being the smartanimals they are, the animals may figure out they’ll get is a cooling bath instead.Motion activated devices are a temporary deterrent at best.
Humans in the garden do tend to deter pigs, sometimes. Tryputting a scarecrow,mannequin, or the like in the garden. Move the scarecrow around every few daysso the pigs don’t get used to it and think a real person is in the garden.
Pigs have a terrific sense of smell and are attracted to thefruits and veggies you are growing, especially overripe ones. To deter thepigs, clean up any fallen or overripe fruit or veggies. Avoid growing cropsthat pigs enjoy, such as strawberriesand other sweet fruit. Also, keep Fido’s food in the house. Pet food leftoutside attracts the attention of pigs as well as other opportunistic critters.
If all else fails, it might be time to capture the pig.There are some agencies that may be able to assist you with this endeavor andlet’s just say that assistance will be needed. You may decide to bait a trapsuch as a dog crate or try to convince the pig to get into a container with theaid of food and patience. Patience will be needed.
Pigs in the garden aren’t going to give up on their littleEden without a protest. Take it slow and easy, and offer plenty of food, theway to any good pigs’ heart.
Pigs are even more adept than goats at evading fencing. Most experts recommend electric fencing, although hog panels can be used. Some farmers keep hogs in a relatively small enclosure with hog panels, ensuring that their space will be churned into mud within days. Now, you can employ this effect to your benefit by using pigs as rototillers, to clear and turn up ground that you intend to plant later. Just use hog panels to fence off a pen for your piglets, buy grain, set up an automatic feeder and an automatic waterer, toss in some straw or sawdust, and watch them grow. If your land is limited, this is probably the way to go. Pigs raised in this way need only about 10 square feet of space each. They will smell, and badly. And you will have to pay for every penny of their nutrition, so it's the most expensive way to raise pigs, as well.
But you may want to consider using electric fencing to enclose your pigs in a larger pasture. Allowing them to have more space, they will spread their own manure, fertilizing your land (or you can pull the manure out and compost it with hay, straw, or wood chips). The key to pasturing pigs, as with any animal, is rotational grazing. That is, rotate them to new pasture as the current pasture gets churned up and muddy. Depending on the size of the pasture, plan to rotate them about weekly. This is the same method used with sheep, goats, cattle, and chickens.
Pigs eat not only grass but brush as well, so you can use them to clear areas that are more rugged.
Make sure you have all the tools you'll need before you start building.
You can’t feed pigs catering waste from any domestic or commercial kitchen, including kitchens that only cater for vegetarians. Catering waste includes used cooking oil.
You generally can’t feed pigs material of animal origin or products containing material of animal origin. However, you can feed pigs:
You can get pig food from a premises that handles material that can’t be fed to pigs, but only if both of the following apply:
Contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency if you’re still unsure whether you can feed something to your pig,
If you haven’t already figured it out by reading this article, preventing disease is much easier than trying to treat it. Many of the most common pig diseases aren’t easily reversed with treatment. For some, there are no treatments at all.
Therefore, making sure to vaccinate your pigs against any common illnesses is important. You should avoid bringing new animals onto the farm. If you do, make sure you quarantine them first to ensure they are fit and healthy.
As with raising all types of animals, make sure you provide the very best living conditions. House your pigs in clean quarters with plenty of fresh bedding, food, and after. It’s also important that you avoid malnutrition in pigs to prevent disease.
It’s not technically a pig disease, per se, but malnutrition is not only a common problem among pigs but also a major reason as to why they fail to thrive. If you can see the hips, backbones, or ribs of your pigs, they are too skinny. The only bones that should be visible on a pig are the shoulder blades.
Malnutrition often occurs as a result of poor quality or not enough feed. You need to provide extra feed to growing pigs as well as to lactating sows. Keep your pig feed clean to prevent contamination.
As with all livestock, while it’s important to be aware of the most common diseases, it’s always best to consult a veterinarian if your animals are ill. Many of the most common pig diseases share symptoms with other, less common ailments. In addition, more involved veterinary treatment might often be necessary to help your pig recover.
A feral pig looks similar to the domestic pig from which it has descended. Each year, these animals are blamed for causing large and amazingly costly damage in the United States alone.
The call came one morning in the spring of 2013. The cemetery was a mess.
Charlotte Watson remembers it clearly. She works in the courts in New York City. She also runs an organization that protects a historic cemetery in rural Texas, where she grew up. Named Willow Wild, this cemetery sits on 36 hectares (90 acres) in Bonham. The site is about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Dallas. Someone in Bonham who regularly visited the cemetery was the first on the scene.
“Something terrible had happened,” Watson recalls — wild pigs!
They had barged in and uprooted wide patches of grass. It looked like someone had ripped out the grass and tilled the soil. No grave markers were knocked over, but “it looked really bad,” says Watson. “You couldn’t imagine [the grass] would grow back.”
For the next few weeks, wild pigs slept under the surrounding trees by day and slipped into the cemetery by night: They came to root in the soil for grubs. These thick white worms, which would grow up to become beetles, live several centimeters (a few inches) below the soil surface.
The invaders weren’t going to leave quickly on their own. Watson and her group had to face some tough questions about how to deal with these far-from-benign swine.
Texas is hardly alone in facing marauding pigs. These wild swine can be found in nearly every U.S. state. They’ve also been spotted in Canada, and many cross the border from Texas into Mexico. In the United States, they have become concentrated in southeastern states. They also wreak havoc in other countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia. In Germany, hordes of pigs dig up gardens in the suburbs of Berlin.
Wild pigs cause some $1.5 billion in damage every year in the United States, mostly to crops, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). They also pose a health hazard. Wild pigs carry at least 30 diseases and 37 parasites (organisms that live and feed on a living host). Some of these diseases and parasites can spread to other animals. They can also infect people who eat or breathe the germs. And when cornered, wild pigs can, though rarely, attack people. Last December, for instance, a feral pig attacked the German hunter who had shot it. The man would later die.
Wildlife biologists around the world want to understand these feral swine to halt the menace. They’re tracking the animals to understand their behavior and predict where they’ll go. Researchers are testing new traps, including some that send real-time video to smartphone apps.
Stopping the pigs is difficult, in part, because they’re canny. “They’re one of the smartest animals on the planet,” notes wildlife biologist Alan Leary. He works for the Missouri Department of Conservation in the state’s capital, Jefferson City. “We have to continually come up with new techniques to stay ahead of them,” he says.
Right now, the pigs are winning.
They go by many names: wild pigs, wild hogs, feral swine, feral pigs and wild boars. But they’re all Sus scrofa, a pig species native to Europe, Asia and North Africa.
A group of wild pigs can devastate corn or soybean fields overnight. The swine can shred riverbanks and wreak havoc near cities, even in people’s yards. They destroy landscaping. The muddy mess they leave behind often looks like the crater from a bomb.
In the last few decades, the pig menace has worsened in the United States because the animals don’t have any natural predators. What’s more, people haven’t found an effective way to stop them. In the first week after the fastest highway in the United States opened — south of Austin, Texas — three cars collided with wild pigs. And then there was that F-16 fighter jet, back in 1988, that collided with feral pigs on a Florida runway. The pilot ejected to safety. His $16 million jet? Destroyed.
There’s a term to describe critters like wild pigs: invasive species. These organisms don’t cause problems in their natural habitats. But when people have introduced them into a new environment, either on purpose or by accident, they tend to cause problems. Sometimes big problems. Invading plants and animals can quickly gobble up available resources and make it harder for other species to thrive.
Invasives might outcompete native species, causing the natives to decline. Or the invasive species could damage crops and natural areas, such as woodlands. Invasive insects might kill trees, leaving a forest more likely to burn. One 2005 study estimated that invasive species cause $120 billion in U.S. damage each year.
Pigs are not native to North America. Spanish settlers who colonized Florida in the 16th century brought along swine. For the first couple hundred years, populations of these animals stayed small and contained. They rarely roamed beyond the Florida panhandle.
Then hunters became interested in wild pigs toward the end of the 20th century and everything changed.
“Their popularity spawned hundreds of commercial fenced operations of wild boar hunts,” says Jack Mayer. He’s a wildlife biologist at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, S.C., and has been studying wild pigs for more than 40 years. Ranchers and farmers began to keep wild pigs for hunters. Alas, he says, the animals couldn’t be contained. “Virtually every state has some of those operations.” Now, he says, “At least one or more of those operations in each state is leaking pigs.”
And their wild populations have exploded in the past 20 years. Partly that’s because pigs can live anywhere, eat just about anything — from acorns to small animals — and reproduce quickly. They can adapt to almost any climate. Mayer says they’ve been spotted in 48 U.S. states (including Hawaii and Alaska). These wild swine have established populations in 36. For now, only Wyoming and Rhode Island appear to be free of feral pigs, says Mayer.
Leary, in Missouri, says people can be part of the problem. Maps show pig populations separated from each other by hundreds of kilometers (miles). The pigs probably didn’t hoof it all that way. People must have transported them. “We know that pigs don’t fly, and they had to get there somehow,” he says. Some people intentionally release wild pigs into an area to create a hunting ground, even though it’s illegal. Such actions give rise to new pig populations.
The problem isn’t going away. The Texas Department of Agriculture predicts that if nothing is done, the pig population in that state will triple within five years. A federal program, the National Feral Swine Damage Management Program, has been created to curb the invasive species’ expansion. Already, it estimates, the United States host some 5 million or 6 million feral pigs. And their numbers are growing.
Indeed, that growth shows no signs of slowing down, according to a 2017 study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. USDA researchers studied pig populations from 1992 to 2012. If they continue to spread at the same rate, it estimates that most counties across the United States will be plagued by wild pigs within 30 to 50 years.
Wild pigs can run as fast as 48 kilometers (30 miles) per hour and scamper over fences a meter (three feet) high. These swine can reproduce once or twice every year, and a typical litter includes five or six piglets. (Some people in the South even joke that “pigs are born pregnant.”) A single pig may grow to weigh hundreds of kilograms (pounds).
Scientists have a lot of information about the habits and behaviors of wild pigs, says Mark Smith. He’s a wildlife biologist at Auburn University in Alabama. “Everybody’s staring at the same science,” he says. “Our role is to get the best information out there, see it and make good judgments off good science.”
Some scientists have run computer models of pig populations. Then they analyze what control tactics might prove most likely to bring those populations down. To completely rid an area of pigs, more than two-thirds of the animals have to be removed every year, those computer models suggest. And that removal rate would need to be continued year after year after year — until there were no more pigs.
How might that removal be accomplished? These are, after all, wily animals.
Some states have established hunting seasons. Others have brought in sharpshooters, or trained hunters. Others offer rewards for feral-pig carcasses. Texas passed a law in 2011 that allowed people to shoot the pigs from helicopters. Now some people pay thousands of dollars for the experience.
Smith doubts that hunting will ever solve the problem. Most hunters stop after they get one or two pigs. What’s more, some scientists have observed that pigs can learn from the hunts. They may adapt their behaviors to avoid hunters. Some might move away from sites where people prefer to hunt. Or the animals might eat at night, instead of by day. That could make them harder to find. Hunting and sharpshooting will likely only work for the last few pigs of a sounder. (Sounder is the name for a group of wild pigs.)
Leary says trapping offers the best chance of catching the most pigs. But the traps have to be smarter than the animals.
Pigs can climb, so the traps must be tall and not have sharp corners that can give a pig a hoofhold to climb out. And traps have to be able to catch all of the pigs in a sounder. If any get away, they’ll know enough to not return to this trap site. Then, unless they’re tracked down some other way, these pigs may colonize a new area.
Newer traps incorporate new technologies. Some include motion-sensor cameras that connect to smartphone apps. The cameras watch the trap, which looks like a big ring of tall metal fencing. There are one or two open gates to the enclosure. When pigs arrive, the camera alerts the landowner or ranger. Then, someone can watch the scene in real-time, from wherever they are. Once all the pigs have wandered into the fenced pen, the trapper can drop a gate through the app with a swipe of a finger.
It’s not cheap, though. A basic trap will cost a farmer hundreds of dollars. With the sensors, cameras and app, that cost can climb into the thousands.
Traps also won’t be able to get all the pigs, says Mayer. So scientists are looking at other approaches. Biologists in Alabama and Colorado are studying possible poisons. But there’s no guarantee that only a pig will consume it. Texas, for example, has black bears. They will eat almost anything that pigs eat. Livestock also might take the bait. Researchers will have to figure out how to poison wild pigs without harming bears or other animals.
At Auburn, Smith says veterinarians are also working on pig birth-control strategies. These are drugs or devices to prevent reproduction. Researchers have developed such drugs that work. But here’s the snag: Someone would have to inject it directly into each pig. And that isn’t practical for wild animals, which could be anywhere — and hiding.
Such efforts to get rid of pigs have the best chance of working where the animals are new, say experts. But the challenge of removing every pig, permanently, is daunting. So scientists want to focus their efforts on reducing pig populations and limiting the damage they cause.
Smith says the way to reduce and control the wild-pig problem will take a combination of methods. First, though, people have to be convinced that their moving and releasing pigs is a serious problem. Traps may then be useful to get most of the pigs. Birth control or poisons, if they don’t cause extensive harm, may help. And sharpshooters may be able to get the last few. “Those last pigs are where you’re spending all your money,” says Smith.
Charlotte Watson, at the cemetery in Texas, went through her own ordeal to get rid of the pigs. First, she hired someone to set up traps. “Ideally, the pigs run in there and they can’t get back out,” she says. Then a trapper would come and get the pigs. The cemetery would pay for every animal caught.
Except that it didn’t work.
“They didn’t pay any attention to the traps,” she says of the pigs. “Of course, hogs are very smart.” A few weeks later, though, the pigs moved to another neighborhood. They haven’t returned. Though Willow Wild may have been spared for now, there’s no guarantee the swine won’t be back wreaking havoc once more.
Correction: The text has been adapted to note that explorers and settlers did not carry pigs to North America until the 16th century.
agriculture The growth of plants, animals or fungi for human needs, including food, fuel, chemicals and medicine.
app Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.
beetle An order of insects known as Coleoptera, containing at least 350,000 different species. Adults tend to have hard and/or horn-like “forewings” which covers the wings used for flight.
behavior The way something, often a person or other organism, acts towards others, or conducts itself.
biology The study of living things. The scientists who study them are known as biologists.
boar A term for the male of some mammals, including pigs and bears.
climate The weather conditions that typically exist in one area, in general, or over a long period.
commercial (in research and economics) An adjective for something that is ready for sale or already being sold. Commercial goods are those caught or produced for others, and not solely for personal consumption.
computer model A program that runs on a computer that creates a model, or simulation, of a real-world feature, phenomenon or event.
crop (in agriculture) A type of plant grown intentionally grown and nurtured by farmers, such as corn, coffee or tomatoes. Or the term could apply to the part of the plant harvested and sold by farmers.
ecology A branch of biology that deals with the relations of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings. A scientist who works in this field is called an ecologist.
environment The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of components in some electronics system or product).
federal Of or related to a country’s national government (not to any state or local government within that nation). For instance, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health are both agencies of the U.S. federal government.
feral Animals that were once domesticated but now run wild. Examples may include feral dogs, horses or pigs.
forest An area of land covered mostly with trees and other woody plants.
germ Any one-celled microorganism, such as a bacterium or fungal species, or a virus particle. Some germs cause disease. Others can promote the health of more complex organisms, including birds and mammals. The health effects of most germs, however, remain unknown.
habitat The area or natural environment in which an animal or plant normally lives, such as a desert, coral reef or freshwater lake. A habitat can be home to thousands of different species.
host (in biology and medicine) The organism (or environment) in which some other thing resides. Humans may be a temporary host for food-poisoning germs or other infective agents.
information (as opposed to data) Facts provided or trends learned about something or someone, often as a result of studying data.
invasive species (also known as aliens) A species that is found living, and often thriving, in an ecosystem other than the one in which it evolved. Some invasive species were deliberately introduced to an environment, such as a prized flower, tree or shrub. Some entered an environment unintentionally, such as a fungus whose spores traveled between continents on the winds. Still others may have escaped from a controlled environment, such as an aquarium or laboratory, and begun growing in the wild. What all of these so-called invasives have in common is that their populations are becoming established in a new environment, often in the absence of natural factors that would control their spread. Invasive species can be plants, animals or disease-causing pathogens. Many have the potential to cause harm to wildlife, people or to a region’s economy.
journal (in science) A publication in which scientists share their research findings with experts (and sometimes even the public). Some journals publish papers from all fields of science, technology, engineering and math, while others are specific to a single subject. The best journals are peer-reviewed: They send all submitted articles to outside experts to be read and critiqued. The goal, here, is to prevent the publication of mistakes, fraud or sloppy work.
livestock Animals raised for meat or dairy products, including cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens and geese.
native Associated with a particular location native plants and animals have been found in a particular location since recorded history began. These species also tend to have developed within a region, occurring there naturally (not because they were planted or moved there by people). Most are particularly well adapted to their environment.
organism Any living thing, from elephants and plants to bacteria and other types of single-celled life.
parasite An organism that gets benefits from another species, called a host, but doesn’t provide that host any benefits. Classic examples of parasites include ticks, fleas and tapeworms.
population (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.
predator (adjective: predatory) A creature that preys on other animals for most or all of its food.
risk The chance or mathematical likelihood that some bad thing might happen. For instance, exposure to radiation poses a risk of cancer. Or the hazard — or peril — itself. (For instance: Among cancer risks that the people faced were radiation and drinking water tainted with arsenic.)
sensor A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly.
simulation (v. simulate) An analysis, often made using a computer, of some conditions, functions or appearance of a physical system. A computer program would do this by using mathematical operations that can describe the system and how it might change over time or in response to different anticipated situations.
smartphone A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the internet.
species A group of similar organisms capable of producing offspring that can survive and reproduce.
Texas The second largest state in the United States, located along the southern border with Mexico. It is about 1,270 kilometers (790 miles) long and covers an area of 696,000 square kilometers (268,581 square miles).
United Kingdom Land encompassing the four “countries” of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. More than 80 percent of the United Kingdom’s inhabitants live in England. Many people — including U.K. residents — argue whether the United Kingdom is a country or instead a confederation of four separate countries. The United Nations and most foreign governments treat the United Kingdom as a single nation.
veterinarian A doctor who studies or treats animals (not humans).
You’ve just decided to become a pig-keeper. Your first thought is that you’d like a variety of pigs, because you just can’t decide which you like best. You’ve always fancied spotted pigs, but you also like the ginger ones, and the white ones and the black ones, so you think you will probably have some of each.
By co-incidence, you spot an advertisement in the local paper: pigs free to good home – phone after 6.00pm. It sounds too good to be true, you phone, a rather grumpy person answers and says he’s selling up and wants to dispose of his stock really quickly. He says there are seven sows and a boar, plus a litter of 10 piglets. He doesn’t seem to know what breed they are but tells you they’ve been producing litters regularly and are very cheap to keep as he just gives them barley and a few cabbages.
He thinks some of them may be expecting litters, but can’t be sure as the boar just runs with them all permanently. You think it will be a good solution for you as it’s a ready-made breeding group (although you hadn’t really thought about breeding so soon, but don’t want to turn down the opportunity).
You arrange to go to see the pigs the next day. When you get there, you find a very dilapidated farmhouse, with lots of ancient cars and trucks littering the yard, numerous scruffy hens picking at the ground and some cats with mangy-looking coats eyeing you from a distance. The owner comes out and points to a field with some rusty tin shelters and lots of deep mud. Some pigs are turning over the ground hoping to find something edible. One of them is limping and another has bare patches all over its coat. One has a very large stomach and looks pregnant.
They’re covered in so much mud, it’s difficult to tell what colour the pigs are underneath. Some piglets run over to greet you, but the older pigs seem a bit lethargic and don’t respond to you at all.
He then says there are some more pigs in the next paddock. You follow him and find two pot-bellied pigs that seem to find it difficult to walk. Their feet are extremely long and turned up at the ends. They seem to be living in a lean-to shed with very little shelter.
When you ask why he’s disposing of the animals, he says he can’t be doing with pigs anymore and is just carrying on with sheep. You wonder why he only wants to give them away, but can’t get any sensible answer from him.
You feel so sorry for the pigs that you decide to take them in. You don’t yet have any suitable housing or fencing, but feel sure it won’t be difficult to sort something out. He says he will have to deliver them at the weekend, because he can’t keep them any longer and you agree to that.
So what’s wrong with that? Well.
First, before even contemplating keeping pigs, you should make sure you have suitable facilities, including an adequate amount of ground, suitable housing, a water supply and excellent fencing. I will be covering these topics in more depth in later articles, but wanted to write this piece on choosing pigs early on, so you can bear this information in mind while you’re preparing suitable homes for your livestock.
Once you’ve definitely decided to keep pigs, you should ask yourself.
What do you want the pigs for?
This may sound a strange question, but there are various possibilities: to provide meat for yourself, to produce meat for sale, to keep pets for your family, to have animals for showing, to produce stock for breeding, to preserve a rare breed of pig and so forth. If, for example, you want a couple of pet pigs, or you want to start a meat supply business, your requirements are likely to differ, so why you want the pigs is an essential first question.
What facilities do you have for keeping your pigs?
If you have a farm or smallholding, you’re likely to have better facilities than if you simply have a large garden. For larger-scale pig-keeping, you must have sufficient ground and space for adequate housing. If you have very, very little space then you’re probably best advised to switch interests and get a dog, some chickens or any other animal with fewer space requirements. If, however, you can adequately provide ground for your pigs, then a major element of pig-keeping will be in place.
What preferences do you have?
Do you like large or small pigs, coloured or spotty ones, prick-eared or lop-eared ones, lively or docile ones? Your own personal preferences can help determine your choice. However, you should think about this in conjunction with the next question.
What are your capabilities?
If you’re fit, strong and mobile, you will be better able to cope with the degree of activity required to look after several large pigs. Just moving straw around for bedding is a hefty chore in itself, let alone trying to handle wilful and energetic pigs. So if physical abilities aren’t your strong point, you may be better suited to a small and quiet breed. There’s little point being drawn to boisterous animals that you’re not able to manage.
Having asked yourself these questions, you can then set about locating your pigs.
Even if you’ve answered these questions carefully, you may well have more than one breed of pig to choose from. I will be featuring a breed of pig in each of my articles for a bit more in-depth information on them, but to give you a feel for what’s available, in the UK at least, here is an overview of the various breeds.
Pig breeds in the UK are split into 'traditional' and 'modern'. Traditional breeds, often called 'rare-breeds', are mostly either endangered species or 'at risk' as a breed. To give an idea of what this means, in 1994, four of the traditional breeds had fewer than 200 new registrations, a further three had fewer than 300, one had fewer than 500 and only one had over 700 registrations. Some British pig breeds have already become extinct.
Traditional pigs come in a range of colours, are very hardy, tend to have long coats and mature slowly. They have a higher amount of fat than modern pigs as they’re able to live outdoors in all weathers. They also produce smaller litters than most modern breeds of pig.
The modern breeds are all referred to as 'pink' pigs – their coats are white and their skins are pink. These breeds are largely kept for commercial pork production on intensive farms. They grow quickly, have large litters and are ready for meat production at a much earlier stage than the traditional breeds.
Apart from the traditional and modern breeds, there are various other breeds that people keep. These tend to be smaller in size and are fewer in numbers than the modern breeds. The box here shows the main breeds in each of the categories I’ve mentioned – there are a few more modern breeds, notably the Duroc, Hampshire and Pietrain, which are 'coloured' pigs, but numbers of these in the UK are very low at present.
It’s important to find a reputable breeder, with well looked after, well-bred stock. Even if you just want a pet, you will do better with one that has been well nourished and cared for, rather than left to fend for itself in poor conditions. A good breeder has a reputation to maintain, so you’re much less likely to find poor or poorly kept specimens at a good pig establishment.
And a good breeder will probably be very helpful after you’ve bought your animals. Most will be happy to speak on the phone to answer queries or chat about good pig-keeping, because they’re interested in the development and welfare of their breed and keen to help new people get started.
Do try to buy registered, pedigree pigs. The traditional and rare breeds will only survive if they’re kept by enthusiasts and registered as pedigree animals. Without registration there is no guarantee that your pig is the breed it purports to be and, without registration, you don’t know the history of your pig, so you don’t know if it’s been in-bred with possible genetic problems resulting.
Also, if you want to breed for food and sell via butchers that deal in rare breed meat, or if you want to show or to sell breeding stock yourself, you will need paperwork proving the pedigree of your pig. And a pedigree pig should be marked with ear-notches, tattoos or tags so it’s obvious which pig it is.
Make sure that your pigs have good conformation and breed characteristics as defined by their specific breed standards. Although the standards vary (these can be obtained from the British Pig Association or from the relevant pig breed societies) there are certain elements of conformation required whatever the breed – in particular sound legs and a good underline/teat placement.
And make sure the pigs you are thinking of purchasing are in good health – if they’re healthy, they should look alert and interested in their environment, their coats should look in good condition, their eyes should look bright and they should move easily without signs of stiffness or lameness. Their bodies should be well covered without appearing too fat and their ribs should not show beneath their skin.
If food is offered, they should take it immediately and eat with obvious enjoyment. You may not know much about conformation or breed characteristics, but you should be able to spot an animal that looks lively and fit rather than dull and malnourished.
Make sure that the temperament of your pigs is good. An aggressive or unduly timid pig won’t make a good acquisition. The aggressive ones will be hazardous to you and any visitors, the timid ones will be difficult to catch and examine or treat if needed. Pigs generally have good temperaments and very individual characters so temperament is an important selection criterion.
Depending on your purpose in buying pigs, their age can be important. If you’re buying to raise for meat for yourself, then weaners – young pigs around 10 weeks old – are best, so you can buy at a reasonable price. If you’re buying breeding stock, then you can buy young, but you may prefer to buy rather older animals so you can see how they have grown on and how their conformation has developed, and also so that they’re closer to breeding age when you get them.
You may even prefer to buy ‘proven’ animals - sows or boars that have already produced or sired a litter, although they will be more expensive. And you may also want to buy a sow with a litter which can provide you with a breeding animal as well as some young ones to sell on or keep for meat. You will probably need more expertise if you take on older stock or ones with litters and this isn’t the preferred course of action for most people.
To find your pigs, you can contact the British Pig Association (BPA) via their website: www.britishpigs.org.uk, or a relevant breed club or society (most of which will be listed on the BPA website). Both the BPA and the breed or regional societies will have lists of breeders and advertisements for stock for sale.
You can also search the internet for breeders, contact the Rare Breeds Survival Trust or look in smallholding, farming and countryside magazines. Another good way of finding a pig is by going to shows that have pigs and talking to exhibitors.
If possible, take a more experienced person with you when you buy, or make certain that you’re going to a reputable breeder who will give you good advice rather than simply want to make a sale. If you’re buying young stock, ask to see the parents if they’re on the premises, so you can see how the younger ones may turn out as they grow and also to check that the parents show no signs of defects or ill health.
It’s difficult to give guidelines on price, as this can differ from breeder to breeder, but you may want to check out more than one breeder to make comparisons. Younger stock will tend to be less expensive, but if they’re very cheap, it could be a sign that their feed and general care has been skimped.
Check if the pigs have been wormed or injected against any illnesses – Erysipelas is the commonest ailment to have preventative treatment, but if you’re buying from an organic farm, you may find that the pigs are not wormed or treated for any other possible illnesses, because routine medication is not generally allowed.
Make sure you get the animals’ registration documents, as you will need these to show transfers of the animals to you. And ask if you can have a bag of the pigs’ present food when you take them, so that you don’t change their diet immediately. You can gradually alter their feeding if you don’t plan to use exactly the same feed as the breeder.
And finally, before you do any of all this, you might consider attending a course on pig keeping. This is one of the best ways of getting a practical introduction to the subject, seeing a well-run pig farm, meeting people knowledgeable in the field, seeing animals close up, getting hands-on practice in handling pigs and the chance to discuss both general and specific issues relevant to you in keeping your own pigs.
I hope you have every success in your venture.