We borrowed a boar in December. His name was Percy and he stayed with our sows for seven weeks. We watched for signs of progress, but Percy was vast and idle and he seemed to do little more than sleep for the entire duration of his visit. Not knowing any better, we began to worry that our breeding plans had misfired. Maybe we’d need to try another boar, or look again at the health of our sows. But then March came and the girls began to swell and sag. We cottoned on and crossed our fingers.
I checked on the first sow at 5:15 on Saturday morning. I’d been out for a fox on the unlit hill, and curlews pealed over the yard. She was asleep in the deep straw, wobbling like jelly with every flick and twitch of her dreams. Everything seemed calm and stable in the sty, so I went into the house to sleep for a couple of hours. When I came back to check on her again, the sun was well up over the sheds and the chickens were scratching in the midden where the nettles grow. It was hardly mid-morning, and there were eleven piglets nuzzling at the sow’s belly.
We’re new to keeping pigs, and the world is full of horror stories. We’d read gruesome tales of sows which eat their own young, and we’d walked in fear of a thousand problems. But this young sow pressed out her litter without the slightest call for help; and they’d responded with enthusiasm and complicity.
Their first few hours came in a kind of musical chairs. The piglets would fight and scrum for their milk, and that made the sow uneasy. She’d stand up and turn round, and the youngsters were painfully vulnerable to being trodden or crushed. Any piglet standing in a vulnerable position when she lay back down was doomed. It was a full-time job to rescue them, and perhaps it’s inevitable that we should have suffered an early casualty. The runt was crushed by a careless step, and maybe that was a mercy because the little pig was losing ground and weighed little more than a handful of straw.
To keep them safe, we sat with them for the first night when they were small and fragile. I sent curling strands of cigarette smoke into the rafters and listened to the crackle and flex of little beasts sleeping on the straw. It was fine to recall the harvesting of that oat straw in the sunlit days of September, less than a stone’s throw from where it was being used.
There was dust and the smell of warm bodies, and the stars rolled past in the broken skylight window. I looked at the old stone walls and imagined the many pigs which have been born in this building in the years before it was mine. I bound those hours into a plait of memories and connections which seems to grow sturdier with every season we spend in this place. We’ve been here for two years, and already it seems impossible that we could ever leave.
But what piglets they are now at four days old. We chose to work with pedigree Oxford Sandy and Black pigs because we loved their markings and the appeal of spotty pigs. Our first weaners were stunning, but then we decided to keep breeding stock and grew the females into adulthood. Oxford Sandy and Black markings often seem to fade and blur with age, so our beautiful youngsters mellowed into brown drabness. But these piglets are gaudy and bright with speckles and patches; their gingers are garish and their whites are pristine.
Match that luminescence with the depth and flex of their personalities. They battle and fray at the slightest nudge; wars are waged over access to teats, and the yard rings to the din of outrage and combat. When the door was opened into the outside pens, the piglets rushed into the sunlight and began to dismantle a bale of straw like a shoal of piranhas. Newly born youngsters are often slow and fumbling. Puppies are blind and calves lie meekly in the long grass. But these creatures sprang out of the womb like tigers; shock-troops with smoke-grenades and megaphones. It’s impossible not to love them.