Pig Conundrum

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The pigs are giving me a headache. It’s been fun to produce our own pork over the last few years, but there’s an inherent problem with pigs which takes a little chewing.

Pigs grow best when they’re fattened on a commercial pellet, and this stuff comes with a mucky footprint. The pellet I buy takes most of its protein content from soya beans and soya extracts, and most of it is shipped into this country from South America. I’m not hugely comfortable with this idea, particularly since the production of soya comes at an increasing cost to the environment.

Most people buy their pigs, buy their feed and put the two together as if they were building an airfix model. That’s not to make it sound easy, but it is fast. Fill them up, turn them over, get them to the slaughterhouse and start again. And if you want to make money, you need to power this system with top-flight commercial feed from Brasil. Compare the process with cattle; in five years, my cows have never eaten anything that I didn’t grow myself.

At first I liked the traditional link of killing pigs in the autumn when they had been fattened on pannage and windblown apples. It’s a lovely idea, but pigs eat enormous volumes of food, so you need a lot of woodland/orchards on your side to do it properly. I give my pigs what natural food I can, but the balance always depends upon being topped up with commercial pellet.

I’ve always wanted to have more input in what my pigs eat. I’m not allowed to feed them food scraps, so I wondered if I could grow crops to feed them. I tried to finish weaners on rolled oats last summer and found that it was impossible. The oats were only part of their diet, and pigs eat, grow and reproduce at such a rate that I simply couldn’t turn out enough oats to get them where they need to be. Now I feed them turnips, but again, I can’t hope to keep up with their appetites. The amount of turnips I have grown to feed the bull over the winter would be shredded by two pigs in a month.

They key difference between my pork and stuff from a more commercial farm is that my animals have a happy outdoor life. Perhaps you can taste that, but it’s hard to overcome the thought that my pork is chemically the same as pork produced in a shed for a mass market. People talk about outdoor pork having special flavour, but if we are what we eat, then outdoor and indoor pigs are chemically identical. Perhaps an outdoor pig will eat a few roots and the odd worm, but that’s hardly enough to hang your hat on when the real work is being done by soya protein.

Back in the old days, pigs would’ve eaten all manner of scraps and waste; the pig’s job was turning loss into profit. Now pigs are targeted with high-octane diets designed to fatten them into volume and weight. But I wonder what those old pigs tasted like, and it’s frustrating that we have no real way to record intensity of flavour. People say my pigs are tastier than shop-bought pork, but I bet they’re nothing like as good as pigs reared a century ago on hazelnuts, tattie peelings and crab apples. And I wonder what those hogs taste like which rootle through the slums of Nairobi and New Delhi?

I have two pigs to kill in the next fortnight. There is no way I can get them to a suitable weight or condition on feed which I produce myself. I could give them what I have and ration it out, but pigs don’t grow if you don’t feed them; at that rate, they would never be ready to kill. So I’ll have to buy in commercial pig food, and then I begin to wonder if keeping pigs is a slightly shameful indulgence, far from what it seems to be as part of a quiet rural idyll. It’s no consolation to wonder how any farm could turn out slaughter-ready pigs off the back of their own labour and make money in the process. Soil Association did some sterling work on fattening pigs on silage, but even that still relies on extensive access to land on a very infrequent rotation.

And in terms of efficiency, there’s no way I can compete with a factory farm which monitors tissue deposition:protein input ratios. My pigs are often too fat when I kill them; the extra blubber is waste. If I was serious about reducing my environmental footprint, I would buy perfectly finished pork from a housed unit. But match that against concerns for animal welfare – my pigs live happy and hilarious lives until their final second.

In all this confusion and dilemma, there’s a growing realisation in the back of my mind that small-scale “hobby” pig farmers like me have a responsibility to balance welfare with efficiency. I’m on the horns (or tusks) of a dilemma.

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Coast

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Down to the shore in a westering sun, and what a weight of birds awaited. Curlews stood in every creek and glistening vein of the shore; oystercatchers and godwits and pintail in the marshes where the samphire glowed almost coral pink. It’s some place, this – wild and far-flung in the horns of an old bay where the tide creeps and slides around the rocks and the shore’s a bursting bank of ancient oak and birch. Turn right around yourself and see no sign of humanity; nothing to suggest that man has ever been. This is the coast where vikings came, and I see what they saw as if their sails were shipped on Tuesday last week.

And mallard among them, and a black smirr of newly come wigeon above the battling tide. And when I felt fit to burst, I looked up and found a galaxy of plover in the hanging sky. Golden plover, winking sad like beech leaves in formation with the hills of home beyond them.

Turnips Home

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The turnips are coming in, and I begin to see how the crop has gone.

Some of these roots have swollen into tyrants. They’re bigger than buoys and glossy with hard, purple hips. It’s a two-handed job to lift the best of them, and pounds of soil cling to their beards in a litter of worms and grit.

It’s my job to hook away their roots with a knife. A few brisk hacks will tidy them up, then off with their heads and the shaws fall wet and crispy as salad. Cleaned and cut, the summer plants are transformed into sweet, woody balls. There’s no way for the goodness to leave them now; no root or leaf to leak away the fuel inside. The plants are blind and disembodied; the trap has worked; heat and sugar stored for winter.

Turnips roll in the trailer like beachballs and the mound grows and the tractor taps and puffs in patience. They smell like food to me, and I conjure up a note of old school dinners in the pall of diesel smoke and the blare of mud. There must be a faster way of doing this work than by hand, but I’m happy to take them one-by-one and bring in tons at a time to the clamp I’ve made in the yard.

I was warned to be careful at this work. The knife is sharp and old men’s hands are covered in nicks and slits from the shawing blade. But I am too cautious and hold the knife in shaky cowardice; I end up striking a turnip with the point of my thumb. The nail peels off like a flake of tin; I see a glimpse of my own meat, the size of a first class stamp. Cushy undernail, then the covering flicks back and sprays me with blood. It’s sore, but how much more painful when I do it again a second later and extend the rip to the deepest pith of my nail bed. Hiss “Ooh, you bitch”; another nail dead. More scar tissue to mark the way.

And it’s strange to find deformities in the crop itself. Many of these turnips have split and riven themselves into weird disorder. There are hollow roots which have died from the inside; there are cracks and black mould on many which have grown too fast and burst themselves like bloated bellies. And there are those which have mouldered into a gel so that when you reach for them, your fingers slip into their bodies and the field reeks of flatulence. It’s a mixed bag, but most are true and they knock together, sound and clean.

The turnips go to the clamp, and I take the shaws to the cattle. They’d be wasted otherwise, and the cows bawl for something new as the grass recedes and their coats grow long for the winter. But they fail to recognize the leaves as food, and it takes a calf to make the connection. These cows have never seen shaws before, and they’re suspicious. But the calves have not seen anything before; they come to the leaves without baggage or cynicism.

One attracts another, and soon the calves are working through the leaves like locusts. The cows stand back and watch, and when they’re sure that there’s nothing to be lost, they bully the youngsters away and fill themselves. It’s grand to hear the crackling crunch of turnip tops in a beast’s mouth, and I listen as the days shorten and the wailing of geese comes clean and fresh from the sea.

Fall

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The same old impossible thing happened last night. A hundred thousand woodcock came across the North Sea by the light of a tall and doughty moon. It happens every year, but it never ceases to astonish me.

More will come tonight and in the next few months until a million woodcock have found their way over from Russia and Finland and the quiet, leaf-curled corners beyond the sea. It’s extraordinary; beyond magical that these birds should come here in such abrupt quantity and yet their arrival is never marked by newscasters. There are no woodcock on the front page of the papers this morning. It’s an event as significant and uplifting as any national news item, but the information (like the birds themselves) simply slides in beneath the radar.

The woods were somehow thicker this morning. Bracken hangs in moody palms, and the willows are suddenly scant. Every bush is dripping and loud with redwings, whose numbers grow like fruiting fungus. Knowing that woodcock had come under the moon and feeling them around me, it was no surprise to see the dogs flush a wild and cagey bird from a web of brambles and spider-bound cocksfoot. Perhaps he saw the sun set in Bergen last night, and now he dabbles in Galloway mud.

The shape was up and away, and with him went the next spell of autumn.

Hoodie Continued

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Having written about the discovery of a hoodie crow last month, I can’t resist a quick note to record the fact that it has remained in situ. I see it every day, and it continues to hang around in a gang with a dozen other black corbies on the hill road. It’s becoming a permanent fixture, and I watched it picking away in the sheep fields for a quarter of an hour last week.

The movement of crows is strange and mysterious. This is clearly a group of young or immature birds, and they’ve taken up loose residency for the autumn. But without the hoodie crow as a marker, I would struggle to identify this group and be sure that I was seeing the same birds. Crows come and go, and groups of youngsters move over large areas in an ambiguous haze of black feathers. Without the hoodie to mark them, these would just be crows.

It may be that this group stays until the spring. That’s when dominant breeding birds will begin to set up territories, and there is a chance that this hoodie will become part of a pair. Research has shown that breeding crows are the worst and most aggressive egg-thieves, and they do most damage to other birds like black grouse and curlews. They actively hunt for nests and chicks, and they can specialise in predatory activities. If this hoodie crow survives the winter (and the growing number of goshawks in the area), then it may lose its status as an object of curiosity – it may become an adversary.

Keratin

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It was loud and messy in the pub. Football streamed over the bar, but we needed a pint after the stickmaking class.

I’ve always wanted to make a good shepherd’s crook, and the class is within walking distance of home. So I’d spent the evening shaping a tup’s horn and pressing it in a vice. By the time we were done, the turn-up of my trousers was filled with crispy filings like parmesan. I’m three weeks into this course, and I love the rasping file and the soft, pearly glow of keratin like mother of pearl. There’s no great mystery in making sticks; just infinite variety and space for the pursuit of perfection. I can see why some people are consumed by it.

But it’s thirsty work, so we sat and drank and each one of us wondered where we’d find the best hazel shanks to cut and dry for next year. I know a place, but I’m keeping it to myself. Then a man came in and staggered to the bar. He offered to buy us all a round, but he had to ask us twice because the football roared like a pig in a drum. Sticky chairs, and the light-flung fans of amber rum on the ceiling. There were photographs pinned behind the bar; fancy dress and folk at the civic week parade. Some of them were old and had round edges; some were new and blurred with thumbing. Beer mats damp at their edges; a dog sleeping as if somebody had killed it.

Then out into the street again as if we’d been tipped. Rain swirled around the streetlamps and the wall-eyed shop-fronts. It pooled in the gutters and hissed in the wake of a passing truck. We talked and turned for home, and in the briefest pause of quiet between our steps, I heard redwings above us; the shrill, almost inaudible “theek” of thrushes moving in the darkness, easily missed in the curse and dribble of a wet town.

Redwings come to us from Scandinavia. They come in shoals under the cover of darkness, and the only forewarning is a shrill and gentle call in the night. Each year I mark it, but usually I have the silence of home on my side. I was lucky to catch the note of that bird with a bellyful of beer and some joke half-issued in my head.

Soon those birds will be obvious and abundant. Redwings will hang from every bough and berry-bearing branch in Galloway, and seeing them will strike me as a kind of boredom. But in a quarter inch of silence and the turn of unfallen rain, that first bird seemed to tap me on the shoulder with a word of Autumn.

 

#116

Fat Hen’s Demise

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Fat hen, shredded by hares

Maybe I’ve written enough about hares in recent weeks, but I can hardly fail to record a discovery which may help to explain their surging numbers. Walking through the frosted turnip field this morning, I found the crop strewn with the wreckage of weeds. The lusty thickets of fat hen have been stripped away to stumps and stems, and the rogue oats which resurged from 2018 have all been felled and eaten. Some of this damage has been caused by linnets and redpolls which come in shoals from the woods and the moor, but most has been driven by the gnawing teeth of hares.

I keep comparing this crop with the field of oats which preceded it. Those oats buoyed a host of birds and wildlife through the winter, and I wondered how turnips could ever match them. But it seems like turnips offer a similar boost, not least because the benefits begin much earlier in the year. Ever since the shaws were tall enough to hide a hare, the field has been thick with activity, and the conservation interest of this field has only grown since midsummer. Compare this with the oats, which only came into their own when the field was cut in September.

It now remains to be seen how the turnips go into the winter. Perhaps the hares will turn their attention to the rows of swollen purple roots and I will begin to resent their predations, but for now it’s fine to see them working through the weeds and all the other plants which sprang to life alongside the crop.

I will be cutting, shawing and building a clamp for these turnips over the next few weeks. Half the crop will be brought in and stored in the yard, but the other half will remain in situ until the cattle come after Christmas. I can’t resist measuring turnips against oats and weighing the conservation benefits of one against the other, but the reality is that both are superb – it’s hard to overstate what a difference this small field has made to local wildlife in two brief years under rotation.