Not all pigs are created equal. Breeds vary in size, temperament, hardiness and suitability for meat production. So which breed is right for you?
What are your aims in buying pigs?
Once you’ve taken the decision to keep pigs, it’s important to be clear about your reasons. Are you buying the animals primarily as pets, or for meat production? How much meat, and what sort, and how much annually? Do you have the space and physical strength needed to look after larger, more boisterous animals – or would you be best to stick to a smaller, quieter breed?
Thinking about these factors should influence the breed of pig you choose, but beware: buying piglets is a lot like buying puppies. Keep your aims in mind, and don’t bring the kids!
Rare breed pigs
Pigs in the UK are generally described as ‘modern’ or ‘rare breed’ (also sometimes called ‘traditional breed’). ‘Modern’ breeds have been bred to have comparatively little fat, and aren’t suitable for raising outdoors – so the traditional breeds are of more interest to regular pig keepers. There is a list of some of the important breeds of pig at the bottom of this page.
Breeder and pedigree
Once you have an idea of which breeds of pig you might consider, it’s time to look for a breeder. The British Pig Association can help here, either directly or by passing you on to the relevant breed club or society. It’s important to look for a reputable source for your animals, as any experienced pig-keeper will tell you horror stories about livestock being offered for sale in terrible condition. A good breeder will probably be only too keen to offer help with ‘after sales’ questions or problems: after all, you’re likely to be a repeat customer.
If you’re just raising weaners for meat, pedigree may not be high on your list of priorities; but a pedigree offers you a guarantee that the animal you are buying has not been in-bred so there are less likely to be genetic difficulties. Also if you are planning to sell any of the meat on as rare-breed pork, you may need paperwork to prove your pig’s bloodline.
Choosing your pigs
When it’s time to select your pigs, try to take someone experienced with you. This is particularly important if you’re not entirely confident in the breeder’s reputation. You’re looking for these signs:
- A glossy coat
- Bright eyes
- Good temperament – avoid unusually timid or aggressive animals
- Moving easily with no signs of stiffness or lameness
- Alert and interested in their environment
- If you offer food they should take it immediately and eat with obvious enjoyment
Check if the pigs have been wormed or vaccinated, but if you’re buying from an organic farm, routine medication including vaccination is not generally allowed. If you’re buying young animals, ask if you can see the parents if they’re on the premises – this can give you a good idea how your investment will turn out, and gives you a chance to watch for any illness or breed defects. Finally, make sure the breeder gives you the animals’ registration documents: you will need these to show transfer of the animals to you.
Note: keeping pigs is much more regulated than keeping poultry, so before you get started you will need to come to grips with local legislation. You need licenses to keep pigs and to move them from place to place, and there are forms to be filled in before your first pigs arrive. For England, visit DirectGov; for Scotland, Scotland.gov.uk; for Wales, Wales.gov.uk; and for Northern Ireland, DoENI. Unless you’re keeping the pigs as pets, you will also need to find a local abattoir that will slaughter the pigs for you. The time to research this is now- not when your weaners reach slaughter weight!
Rare breed list
Berkshire: a black pig with a mild temperament. Good quality pork variety renowned for excellent crackling.
British lop: a very docile white pig with large lop ears. Extremely hardy and makes both good pork and bacon, but the breed is endangered and may be difficult to get hold of.
British Saddleback: hardy and a good grazer, ideal for organic production. Mild temperment, good for both pork and bacon.
Gloucester Old Spot: probably one of the best-known rare breeds of pig, the Old Spot is extremely hardy and docile which makes it a good smallholder’s pig. Excellent for chops, roasting joints or sausages.
Large Black: The UK’s only entirely black pig. Despite its size it is very docile, and is renowned for producing excellent bacon.
Middle White: Small and good natured, Middle Whites produce small joints of high quality meat.
Oxford Sandy & Black: Very hardy and with a good coat, it is rarely bothered by sunburn. A medium to large docile pig with a good temperment. Gives white-skinned pork and superb bacon. Very easy to handle and is a good choice for first-time pig keepers, especially ones with children.
Tamworth: A long-snouted and lively breed of pig that loves to dig, making it ideal for smallholders who need land turned over from time to time. Resistant to sunburn, and ideal for bacon and big hams. Tamworth meat was the clear winner in a 1990s Bristol University taste experiment.
Kune-kune: This New Zealand pig does not grow to anything like the size of ordinary pigs. They eat mostly grass and don’t tend to dig very much, and since they are also very docile and love the company of humans they make excellent pets. They do however (whisper it) produce excellent pork!