Freebirthing, the Berkshire Way, 2016

Edith, of the Excelsa line, was last shown at the 2015 Royal Berkshire Show by Chris Impey.

I decided to buy her as dam to Bear, Kilcot Peter Lad, also at this his last show with Sharon Barnfield.

I collected Bear in October and Edith arrived in November. They were in neighbouring paddocks until January when they were put in together.

Edith soon became tired of Bear’s attentions and decided to brave the electric fencing and join the herd of cross-breed sows, weaners and piglets. They all free-ranged together over about 7 acres of rough pasture and old woodland. Perfect for pigs.

I had planned for Edith to farrow within the confines of a small paddock and inside an ark but she had other ideas, as I had thought she might. One day, she was nowhere to be seen and finding a black pig, however large, proved an impossible task but as the day darkened, so I heard branches cracking in the copse and I found Edith building a magnificent nest under a fallen pine tree.

The other pigs left her alone to get on with her work and I invited Jane (Bissett, Kennixton Flock) to join me and watch this beautiful animal build her own farrowing space through the night. In the morning, I found her stretched out in a bed of pine needles and assorted dry matter having already given birth to two piglets. The first of the Swanbridge pedigree Berkshire herd. A dream come true.

Jane and I had tea and cake and witnessed 9 piglets farrowed with the sow doing well and needing no intervention from us. Edith had positioned herself such that one back leg was braced against a tree stump and the other hooked over a branch above with the newborns free to find her milk without risking a kick. I like to think this was deliberate on Edith’s part.

The only problems with Edith’s free-birthing decision were mine. The weather became cold and I worried. Trudges across the field through the frosty nights, with extra food and water and straw, for Edith and her sander were well worthwhile and whilst, sadly, two piglets were lost to crushing, 7 stonking weaners are now free-ranging with the herd two months later.

Watching Edith protect those piglets during the first weeks was an utter privilege. Every time she left them, however briefly, they were covered with dry material. The nest was divided into three sections – feeding, sleeping and play areas. She had chosen a spot not only under a fallen pine but beside an old wall so it afforded protection from any possible predators as well as being bone dry when it rained and sheltered from the wind.

Edith has never shown any aggression towards her human minders and continues to be a delightful and caring mum to her brood.

As examples of the Berkshire breed, she and the sire, Bear, show all the required characteristics – winning build and markings, gentle temperaments and charismatic natures. I am sure that their offspring will be just the same.
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Many thanks

 

 

 

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Lone Free Rangers

Berkshire pigs. When I first looked into keeping pigs, these were the ones for me. Roughty toughty outdoor breed, rare enough and good to eat; and best of all, wouldn’t get sunburn on my south facing, coastal fields.

3 years into keeping cross breeds and in to learning how to look after pigs, I had a small windfall and decided the time was right to invest in the pure breds I so fancied. The Berkshire Pig Breeders Club introduced me to Sharon Barnfield and I acquired Bear, aka Kilcot Peter Ladd. And quite a lad he has turned out to be. Now a bruiser with tusks and boar plates, he has sired 8 sanders in 2 years, not all planned it has to be said. His enthusiasm for his work has been boundless and no amount of electric or stock fencing has prevented him from doing what he clearly regards as his duty. Still fond of a tummy tickle and a cucumber, Bear lives in an acre paddock near my house, so near that he and I chat through the kitchen window.

I bought Edith, of the Excelsa line, from Chris Impey shortly afterwards. She is my hippy pig, a laid back lady with middling enthusiasm for Bear’s attentions. Edith is the free-birthing trail-blazer of the Swanbridge herd. (See separate blog post, Freebirthing the Berkshire Way.)

My other 3 sows are Middle White x Berkshire crosses and they all muddle along together across 8 acres of rough pasture, woodland and occasionally help themselves to another 7 acres of sheep grazing / hay field when I’m not looking.

Over the years, I have learned how to manage their feed according to the ground they occupy, using a crude rotation system through the seasons to take advantage of the acorns, grass, hogweed and so forth. Foraging now provides the bulk of their intake with supplementary milled feed from a local farm combined with a high quality commercial feed from the local agricultural suppliers.

They are fit not fat. Their vet practice has written up Swanbridge Porkers as an example of good practice in pig keeping and has supported me in maintaining a vaccination programme against Erysipelas and Parvo, for example.

This free ranging system allows the pigs to display all their natural behaviours – from building nests under trees for farrowing to dismantling hosepipes to make their own wallows… but it does bring its problems.

Ground can quickly turn sour if over used, especially in the wet winter months; and it is no fun for the smallholder trudging knee deep in mud across windswept fields, carting sacks of feed around. Making sure they get enough to eat and the right balance of minerals is also important and that is why I supplement, we have domesticated them after all.

It is also worth bearing in mind that already a slow growing breed, Berkies can take up to a year to reach pork weight when they are living off the land and scampering about all day. Delicious, dark meat with an 1” back fat is worth waiting for; and they do make a fine sausage.

Karen's breakfast
Swanbridge Porker sausage and bacon

 

roast pork
Roast Swanbridge Porker joint

 

 

Limpy

Limpy is a small, broken pig. She is a Middle White x Berkshire cross, born to Georgia about two years ago. When a weaner, Limpy fractured her front left leg and right shoulder – I do not know how but I do know that with care, they healed well enough for her to manage although she could not bear much weight on the front right trotter. However, she stopped growing. This was a good thing for her as pigs do not generally manage well on 3 legs and humane slaughter had been a consideration. Soft heart won out over common sense and Limpy stayed.

Then Bear the boar (a hefty chap, pedigree Berkshire) escaped his electric fencing and attended to poor Limpy. I assumed that as she was undersize that she wouldn’t take but on closer inspection two months’ later, it was evident that she was in pig.

I did some research. The prospects were not good for Limpy nor for the piglets. The likelihood was that she would not survive the farrowing, that the piglets would be undersized, that she would not be able to feed them, that she would be unable to mother them. All bad news heading our way.

Practically, the most immediate problem was keeping her away from the big sows. It was February, cold and wet. Very wet and very muddy and the forecast was even wetter and even muddier. One sow had already farrowed and was living under a tarpaulin in the wood; another was in the big shed. This left the Downton Abbey ark for Limpy which fortunately was only 30 yards from the house. She was moved in and penned in with electric fencing. Limpy suddenly found herself in the wholly new position of nice, warm accommodation, food on a twice daily delivery service, private water supply and a view of the sea.

She bagged up very neatly and on the morning of 3rd March, 2017, she farrowed. 1 born dead but 6 big healthy live piglets and no problems. None. Limpy didn’t let down her milk straight away so the wonderful Arthur John & co. of Cowbridge, agricultural suppliers, lined up lamb colostrum subsitute and multimilk, bottles and teats for me to collect. The gorgeous wriggly piglets had both lamb colostrum and then, when Limpy’s milk came on line much later that day, hers too. Bottle feeding 6 piglets round the clock would have been tiring work but we would have managed somehow – I was very grateful nature stepped up to the mark, however!

Limpy was going to need lots of extra feed but I couldn’t risk her getting fat and being unable to bear her weight on the bad leg. Also, being so small, her capacity to eat on par with a normal sow was impossible. So, a rota with Jane (Kennixton Flock, bringer of the Braeburn apples for Limpy) meant that Limpy was fed at roughly 4 hourly intervals with high protein feed mixed with eggs and multimilk (nothing goes to waste). The piglets, attracted to the milky feed, also supplemented their suckling with her feed much earlier than I had noticed any other piglets doing.

Limpy’s piglets are now weaned. They are still living together in their own paddock but will have to be separated very soon. They are the biggest and fastest growing piglets we have had yet in the Swanbridge Herd. They weigh the same as Limpy now.

She could not have managed without support but what a brilliant mother she has been; and continues to be. Limpy’s little story deserved to be told.