LIZ SHANKLAND meets some captivating pet pigs and discovers that size isn’t everything
Fred Rogers is one of those people who loves animals unconditionally. Even when they make her ill. You might think that contracting pneumonia and discovering the condition was linked to a mycoplasma infection found in her turkeys might have put her off keeping birds. Not at all. Nor was she too perturbed when she caught ringworm from hedgehogs she had rescued – despite having her hands covered in painful blisters for weeks.
I suspect that – Heaven forbid – if her beloved pet pigs put her in hospital, she would just take that in her stride, too.
Fred (real name Karina) is totally devoted to her ‘lawnmowers’, as she calls them – a delightfully varied bunch of charismatic Kunekunes and Swedish miniature pigs. They have a blissful life in a paddock next to the pretty sandstone cottage in Hinstock, Shropshire, which she shares with her partner George Barlow.
“I absolutely love my pigs!” she says. “I spend far too much time with them, but they make me so happy every time I go out to see them. I admit that it can be hard in the winter when it’s dark and I’ve been at work all day, but I have smiled every day since they arrived. Even poo-picking isn’t really a chore.”
Fred’s pig keeping only dates back four years, but, as the daughter of a jockey, she spent her childhood in the countryside, surrounded by animals. When she was about 12 years old, a local farmer who needed help with his cattle, sheep, and pigs, agreed to give her a part-time job.
The farmer had beef cattle, sheep, and pigs. There was a Large White boar, some Large White sows, and some British Saddleback sows. It was the 1980s and, like many farmers at the time, the sows were put into crates in late pregnancy, to constrict their movement and reduce the likelihood of them lying on their newborn piglets.
“One of my jobs was to back them out of the crates twice a day and take them down the lane to stretch their legs,” Fred explains. “I dreaded it, as they used to gang up to storm past me and get further up the lane! I loved the pigs, though, and it was then that I vowed to have them myself one day.”
Fred – who works as a book keeper and a dog groomer, and also finds time to arrange pet cremations – moved to her smallholding a decade ago. As well as having an attractively laid-out garden – where chickens, ducks, and turkeys now roam contentedly – there was also a paddock of about an acre in size which was destined to become the pigs’ domain.
Like lots of smallholders, Fred and George started with hens and then expanded to other birds. To keep the paddock under control while they decided what to do with it, they borrowed a succession of sheep from a friend who was grateful for the extra grazing.
“I always longed for pigs, and I had thought of putting some in the paddock,” Fred said. “But, but to be honest, when the Foot and Mouth epidemic began in 2001, it put me off the idea. People everywhere were having their animals slaughtered and I knew that if that had happened to my animals, I would have been devastated.
“Then I had my particularly nasty bout of pneumonia at the end of 2009, and I was in hospital and recovering at home for ages and I started thinking about pigs again. In 2010, I took George to see some Kunekunes. I had been aware of them for years, and I liked the idea of them being grazing pigs, rather than ones that root. George was totally smitten and we finally took delivery of our first two in October 2010.”
Sadly, one of the pigs died early on, and the owner duly replaced him with not just another one, but two! More followed and then, in 2011, Fred bought two miniature pot bellied-type gilts known as Little Swedish Pigs (see the April 2013 CS for an interview with a breeder who imported the first of these miniature pigs into the UK). The pigs are a true miniature breed, descended from animals which, more than 60 years ago, were selectively bred to be small enough to be used in laboratory research. Fred’s are three years old and, although fully-grown, remain below knee-height. She originally planned to breed from the gilts, but changed her mind when the whole ‘micro-pig’ craze led to unscrupulous dealers breeding runt-to-runt to produce small pet pigs, and would-be owners desperate to have them as domestic playthings.
“I just didn’t like the way the market was going,” Fred explained. “Pigs which are not fit and healthy are being bred in atrocious conditions and sold to people who don’t know how to keep them. Pigs are not indoor pets, but too many people take them on thinking they can house train them. They soon find out that pigs aren’t for them, and they end up as unwanted pets. I’ve put aside the idea of breeding for a while. Hopefully, one day the so-called ‘micro pig’ bubble will burst.
“I have found that really good homes are few and far between these days. The Swedes are very special pigs and it would have to be a very special person with plenty of outdoor space to be worthy enough of having a pig from me. I am passionate about pigs being given enough space to wander freely and use their minds.”
There is no doubt that Fred’s pigs definitely use their minds. As we walk into their paddock, they come racing out and, to my astonishment, sit and wait for a treat. As someone used to being bowled over by big, enthusiastic Tamworths demanding food, it all comes as a bit of a shock. “They always do this,” Fred says, in a very matter-of-fact way. “It takes about half an hour to teach them when they first arrive. They are very fast learners.”
They appear to be very resourceful in other ways, too. When the apple and plum trees are heavy with ripe fruit and about to fall, they have various ways of speeding up the windfalls. “One of them rubs against the tree to shake the boughs and make the fruit fall,” says Fred. “Another will stand with his front legs on top of one of the other pigs to reach the branches. Then there’s a really clever one who does nothing – he just waits for the others to make the fruit fall and helps himself.”
Keen to give them as much mental stimulation as possible, Fred often lets them wander out of the paddock into the garden or the courtyard. “They always let me know when they want to go back to their paddock,” she says. “They tap the door or knock it using my watering can.”
When I arrived at Fred’s, one of her ‘magnificent seven’ was missing. George Junior – a three-and-a-half-year-old castrate – was recovering at the University of Liverpool’s acclaimed veterinary teaching hospital after an operation to remove bladder stones.
After trying several different courses of medication and urine tests, Fred’s local vet agreed to refer George for specialist treatment. Expert help doesn’t come cheap, but Fred had no hesitation in sending him to Liverpool, regardless of the fact that the bill could run into thousands of pounds. “I know a lot of people wouldn’t have bothered, but my pigs are all special to me,” she explained. “I’m dreading the bill arriving, but it will be worth it if George gets through this. It looks like I’m not going to be able to afford that facelift after all!”