AUG 28, 2012: Many people can be lured into pig keeping when they are ill-prepared for it, as Liz Shankland explains
“We’ve got a bit of land and the kids have been nagging us for ages,” is one of the familiar phrases I hear. “We thought that now would be a good time to do it.” Chills run down my spine whenever I hear something like this. People who have no previous experience or knowledge of keeping farm animals suddenly decide it’s time to jump in with both feet and take on a big commitment – but how big, they have no idea. More often than not, they know nothing of the regulations relating to the keeping of four-legged livestock – and all too frequently, they don’t care (“You don’t really have to make it all official, do you?”). So here’s the thing: I’ve never pretended that pigs make good pets. Yes, I give all my sows names, I know them individually, and they all have their own personality quirks and characteristics. They are treated like pets in many respects: I lavish attention on them; I feed them special treats (only those permitted by law, of course); I have built up a relationship with them over the years, and I’m always saddened when one of them dies or has to be sent for slaughter. However, I don’t keep them in the house, I don’t take them for walks on a lead, I don’t paint their hooves with nail varnish, I don’t dress them up in novelty outfits, and I don’t parade them before friends as the latest fashion accessory. Regardless of how attached I get to my sows, they are working animals which are there to produce piglets – piglets that will, in the main, get raised for meat and eaten. So you think I’m harsh and unfeeling? Let me tell you about Thisbe. She came from the first litter I bred and was the only one of eight that I chose to register. She was an amazingly friendly pig, very gentle and affectionate and, when I took her out on the show circuit, her calm temperament made her a pleasure to exhibit. She had the looks to turn heads, too. She quickly started winning classes and, in September 2010, Tudful Jacqueline 08 won the coveted title of Tamworth Champion of Champions, making her officially the best Tamworth in the UK. I naturally had great hopes of showing her and breeding from her for many years to come – but disaster struck. Newly-weaned, she was paired with another sow – one that I had bought in from another breeder. As expected, there was a bit of fighting when they were both put into the same paddock, but the fuss settled down as Thisbe dutifully accepted her place further down the pecking order. Half an hour later, I found Thisbe gasping for breath and paddling her back legs. Her heart failed and she died in front of me. I cried for weeks – partly out of anger at myself for not staying with her and being on hand to stop the fighting, partly because I’d had to watch this pig that I truly loved having her hind legs unceremoniously lashed to the arm of a mini-digger, her body hoisted out of the pen and then taken away for incineration by some anonymous and uncaring disposal company. I still fill up with tears when I think about it. When the victorious sow – who went on to rip apart three different boars as she spurned their advances – was cut up at the abattoir, it emerged she had polycystic ovaries, which can cause hormonal problems, infertility, and serious aggression. The moral of this tale is that I can get attached to an animal just as much as the next person. What I’m trying to explain is that you have to have boundaries. Pigs are not like cats or dogs, and you should never attempt to make them so. QUICK START GUIDE Here is my quick-start guide for those contemplating becoming ‘pet’ pig keepers. 1. As farm animals, pigs are subject to strict livestock regulations. Any land they are kept on must first be registered as an agricultural holding. You will need to get a County Parish Holding (CPH) number and a herd number. 2. Pigs are herd beasts and need the company of their own kind. They should NEVER be kept alone; other species – whether humans, cats, or dogs – will not make up for the loss of companionship. 3. You can’t just take a pig with you wherever you go, as you would a dog. Movement restrictions are imposed on pigs and other livestock with good reason – to minimise the spread of disease and, in the case of an outbreak, to enable the authorities to trace the source. Every time a pig moves onto your land, it triggers a ‘standstill’ on other livestock – a total of 20 days on other pigs, and six days on cattle and sheep. 4. They should never be treated as house pets. Keeping pigs indoors is a recipe for disaster. Why? a) It’s in a pig’s nature to root. If a pig is kept indoors, it will do just the same as it would if it were out – digging down to find food. This means that carpets, floor tiles, and even floorboards will eventually be ripped up. Furniture, doors, and even wall-mounted radiators have been destroyed by so-called ‘house pigs”’ doing what comes naturally. b) Pigs smell! Some breeders will tell you that pigs can be house-trained (I’ve yet to see that work) but there is no denying that pigs carry a very distinctive scent which works its way into your clothes, your skin, your hair – and, of course, it will get into your home furnishings, too. Boar scent is particularly bad. 5. If you keep your pigs outdoors – as you should – be prepared for the ground to be turned into something resembling the Somme within a matter of weeks. Grass can take a long time to recover after pig activity, so have plenty of fresh ground available so that you can move your pigs when conditions become too bad. 6. Pigs can’t be fed anything that has entered a kitchen. Give them proper pig feed – definitely no household or commercial waste – or risk a fine of up to �2,000. 7. Don’t believe what people tell you about so-called ‘micro pigs’ or ‘tea cup pigs’. The truth is, they don’t exist. Breeding runt-to-runt is no guarantee that they will stay small. There is every possibility of a genetic throw-back – two smallish pigs producing a piglet which looks tiny at weaning age, but grows and grows to be as tall as his full-size ancestors were a few generations before. 8. If you don’t plan to breed from your pigs, they need to be neutered. As pigs mature, their hormones go haywire and they naturally start exhibiting sexual behaviour. Males which are intended to be kept as pets should always be castrated, in order to avoid boisterous tendencies; females, too, can become demanding and pushy each time they come into season. 9. If you have children, never leave them unattended with pigs, however small. Even day-old piglets have sharp teeth, and they get stronger and sharper as they get older. A pig of just a few months old can create injuries as serious as any dog.