Increasingly rare, the genial and resilient Tamworth is a link back to Britain’s forest pigs and wild boars
Tails swishing from side to side, ears pricked in anticipation, five piglets trot across a spring meadow, scrambling over each other’s backs as they jostle for position. Just a few weeks old, this is the furthest they have ventured from their mother, but she is content to let them roam. Squealing with excitement, they root through the soil, sniffing and biting at sticks and pebbles, rising on their toes to investigate the bark of trees. Their red coats gleam bright against the green grass as they explore their new world.
Tamworth pigs like these were once a familiar sight in the British countryside, especially in their native Staffordshire and neighbouring counties. In the days when almost every rural cottager, and many working-class urban homes, kept a pig, they were a favourite provider of pork and bacon. But today they are much less common. “It’s a shame they’re not as popular now, because they’re so well suited to the smallholder,” says Sarah Dodds, who breeds Tamworths on her farm in the foothills of the Cheviots. “They’re so bright and inquisitive, they’re a joy to keep, and their friendly nature makes them really easy to deal with.”
Sarah was drawn to Tamworths the first time she saw them. “I was on a farm placement before starting agricultural college,” she says. “I knew straight away I would have some in the future.” Twenty years later, she still has her herd of Tamworths. They live outside all year round, only coming in from the Northumbrian weather to farrow and rear their piglets.
This resilience is one of the traits of the breed. “They’re forgiving animals that do well on rough terrain, and can be kept on anything from fresh pastureland to poor, rocky soil,” says Sarah. “They’re very hardy, and their thick, coarse coat withstands our climate well. However, you must always make sure there is shelter when they need it.”
It is this coat that makes the Tamworth the most recognisable of pigs. Its colour ranges from pale, gingery blond to deep red-brown, the latter giving rise to their old country name of the mahogany pig. Living 10-15 years, Tamworths only reach their full size at approximately five. They are long pigs, usually measuring 39-56in (100-140cm) from ear to base of tail. Reaching a height of approximately 26in (66cm), they have a relatively flat back that slopes gently from the shoulder. Their fringed ears are large and upright, rather than folded, as in lop-eared pigs. The eyes are brown, or more rarely blue, and the tail, which they wave when happy or excited, reaches 12in (30cm) uncurled. Compared with other breeds, the Tamworth has long legs and snout, and a shallow, only slightly dished face with a tight jowl.
It is these last features that give a clue to the Tamworth’s long heritage. Genetically distinct from other native UK breeds, it is the closest living relative of the Old English forest pig, itself a descendant of the wild boar.
In the 18th century, there was a push to improve native pigs by crossing them with breeds from south-east Asia, particularly China. These pigs were faster-growing, fatter animals with shorter legs and snouts. The resulting offspring provided more meat for an expanding population. But the Tamworth was never part of this drive. Relatively rare outside the Midlands and slow to mature, it was not considered a worthy investment. It remains one of the least inter-bred of pigs, although some development took place in the early 19th century. No official records exist, but many believe it may have been crossed with Irish grazer pigs by Sir Robert Peel. He had imported grazers to his estate at Drayton Manor, near Tamworth.
Its long snout means the Tamworth, like its ancestors, is a particularly good forager. It uses its sharp sense of smell to find roots, tubers, berries and fungi in undergrowth and soil. A pig’s snout ends in a disc of cartilage, which makes it firm but flexible enough to push, dig and lift.
As it forages, not only does it eat unwanted plants, but it also breaks up the soil and destroys larvae that would otherwise damage vegetation. Before crops could be planted, medieval swineherds used pigs to clear areas of forest, a practice that continues to this day. “Over the years, I’ve hired out many a pig to country estates and stately homes, where they’ve wanted to bring a kitchen garden back to its original state, or just to clear ground,” says Sarah. “The Forestry Commission uses them to clear bracken and the like in an environmentally friendly way. Pigs are actually very methodical in their digging and will do a section at a time, working from a specific spot.”
On the farm
With a Tamworth boar reaching as much as 40st (254kg) and sows up to 25st (159kg), a bad-tempered animal could cause real problems. But handling Tamworths has never given Sarah any cause for concern.
“They love interaction with humans,” she says. “They are highly sociable animals and very intelligent. They’re not as docile as lop-eared pigs, but Tamworths will become quite tame. They’ve been shown to respond to approximately 1,000 words and commands, the same as a Labrador. And they truly are all individual characters.”
Apart from a few glands in the snout, they do not sweat. Instead, they enjoy wallowing in mud which helps them regulate their body temperature and rids them of insects. They also rub against trees to keep their skin in good condition. Although in summer Tamworths moult some of their thick coat, it still affords them protection from the sun. They are less likely to burn or suffer the heat stress to which ‘pink’ pigs are prone. They are sensitive to draughts, however, and will do everything they can to avoid them. It may have been this that gave rise to the folk belief that pigs can see the wind.
Pigs become very stressed if isolated. Feral pigs always spend a lot of time with each other. They rest together after dusk, sleep in the same nest and often huddle together for warmth. Clean animals, they always create separate areas for use as a toilet, and for eating and sleeping.
Sarah carries out health checks on her pigs when she feeds them, which is done twice a day. “A poorly pig is poorly very quickly, so you would know straight away if there’s a problem,” she says. “But Tamworths are very resilient and shouldn’t be sick often. I don’t vaccinate as I operate a closed herd, breeding my own replacement pigs whose health I’m certain of. I keep pigs of the same bloodline together so I can maintain the pedigree.”
Until the 1930s, a pig was a valued member of many British households. Often treated almost as a pet, they would convert leftover food and peelings into manure for the vegetable patch. They were also a source of cheap food. Everything was used ‘except the squeal’. As well as the main cuts of ham and bacon, pickled or fried cheeks, known as chaps, roast chines or backbones, sausages, faggots, black pudding, boiled trotters and brawn were all popular. Glue was made from the bones, paint brushes from the bristles, and the fat concocted into medicines and soap. They were so important to the family budget that pig clubs flourished across the country. Members paid into the fund, receiving a payout should their animal become ill or die.
After the Second World War, fewer people kept pigs. This was coupled with a change in farming practice, when it was decided that just three fast-growing breeds should form the basis of the modern British pig industry. These were the large white, landrace and Welsh. The Tamworth and other native pigs fell into decline, with some, such as the Lincolnshire curly coat, becoming completely extinct.
Today, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust classes the Tamworth as ‘vulnerable’, meaning there are just 200-300 registered breeding sows. “I’m afraid it’s a case of use it or lose it,” says Sarah. “And you should use the Tamworth. The meat is fantastic, being well marbled and full of flavour. These rare breeds haven’t been tampered with and the pigs reach a good age. You need age to develop the flavour.”
To maintain interest in the breed, she runs courses to help potential new Tamworth owners get started. “I show them my system for keeping pigs and they find it really helpful to visualise what’s involved,” she says. “We do some hands-on jobs with the pigs, and I take them through all the paperwork you need. Often the books they have read make it seem a lot more complicated than it really is.
“Unless people keep them and breed them, and people eat the meat, there’s no point in having the animal, and they will disappear. Anyone who has a hankering to keep Tamworths should really think about giving it a go. I absolutely love my pigs. They are real characters and enjoy human contact, and are a great hobby or small business for anyone.”
Breeding and piglets
When a sow comes into season her behaviour changes. She will become lethargic and have less appetite. The courtship ritual is short, with a boar emitting a series of grunts around the female, who then initiates mating. She will be pregnant for approximately 113 days, the ‘three months, three weeks and three days’ as farming tradition states.
About 12 hours before sows are ready to farrow, they form a nest in their straw. “They may become restless, getting up and down frequently,” says Sarah. “The older sows know the routine and are more likely to lie down and get on with it.”
Sows usually have two litters of eight to 10 piglets a year. This is a smaller litter than most commercial breeds, but Tamworths are good mothers, even-tempered and producing a lot of milk. All sows of every breed have a divided uterus, allowing them to have litters rather than single or double piglets. Tamworths are born in two ‘batches’, those on one side of the mother’s uterus being born before the other.
Tamworth piglets radiate charm. Lively and spirited, they are on their feet within minutes of birth, usually weighing 1-2lb (0.5-1kg). “The condition of the sow makes a big difference to the size of the piglets, and nowadays there is rarely a runt of the litter,” says Sarah.
Grunts from the sow encourage her piglets to suckle. There is an initial scramble as each picks a teat, which they will then use for the entire suckling period. They are fully weaned at eight weeks, although some may take some food from as early as four weeks.
The biggest danger in the early days is being crushed under the weight of their mother. A sow will usually root through the nest to make sure no piglets are hidden before she lies down, but accidents mean losing a couple of piglets is common. Sarah puts a heat lamp in the corner of the pen of a winter litter. “Piglets love the heat, but as well as keeping them warm,
it keeps them away from the danger of being squashed.”
Pigs are born with low supplies of iron, but in the wild would get all they need from rooting through the soil. Pigs kept indoors or in an area of iron-poor soil need an iron injection at birth. Most of Sarah’s pigs are sold as weaners at six to 12 weeks to farmers in northern England and Scotland for them to fatten. Others she sells as breeding stock.
Words: Diane Wardle
Words: Diane Wardle