Visitors to the Heckington Show in Lincolnshire this summer could barely believe their eyes. Tucked away in a corner of the livestock tent were two pigs which bore an uncanny resemblance to a breed many showgoers believed had died out almost 40 years ago. But these were very much alive.
“One woman kept coming back to the pen again and again saying she just couldn’t believe it,” says exhibitor and pig breeder Brian Codling. “It turned out that her father kept Lincolnshire Curly Coats a long time ago and our pigs looked just like them.”
The extinct yet much-missed Lincolnshire Curly Coat was a giant of a pig, sometimes weighing over 250kg – more fat than lean – with powerful shoulders higher than a man’s waist. And, as the name suggests, it was extremely hairy.
The last Curly Coat died in 1972, consigned to the history books by faster maturing breeds reared for leaner meat. But the pigs at Heckington were the next best thing: Rare Hungarian Mangalitzas, until recently never seen in England.
Mr Codling and his wife Sylvia, who run the Rectory Reserve at Fulletby in the Lincolnshire Wolds, had taken delivery of four Mangalitzas after meeting Tony York, a Wiltshire breeder with a passion for curly-coated pigs.
Mangalitzas make high-quality hams
There are three types of Mangalitza pig – the Red, the darker Swallow Belly and the Blonde. It is the Blonde which most resembles the lost Lincolnshire Curly Coat because of its colour, which varies from grey to yellow.
Fascinated with the tale of the lost Lincolnshire Curly Coat, Mr York had spent the past 10 years tirelessly campaigning to introduce the Mangalitza breed to England. Last year, after an arduous 2400-mile trip, he finally succeeded.
“The Lincolnshire Curly Coat was one of our most spectacular breeds,” says Mr York. “It was a pig famous for its hardiness as well as its wonderful curly coat and popular with farmers demanding stock capable of surviving harsh winters.”
So popular, in fact, that Curly Coat genes live on, because many of the animals were exported to Hungary during the early 20th century, winning some of the top awards at the Budapest agricultural show and even scooping the coveted Gold Medal in 1925.
“The Hungarians were so impressed that they used the Lincolnshire Curly Coat to cross with their Mangalitza – a very similar curly-coated pig – and they nicknamed the resultant cross the ‘Lincolista’ in its honour.”
At one time, meat products from the Mangalitza were in such high demand that the pigs were traded on the Vienna stock exchange, with a reputed 100,000 animals a year sold out of Hungary.
Like its English cousin, the Mangalitza can also be fattened into a big pig. But whereas the Curly Coat eventually fell victim to changing tastes and demand for leaner bacon, the Mangalitza managed to hang on, albeit feeding a dwindling number of people.
But bringing the breed to Britain was to prove easier said than done. By the late 1990s, the Mangalitza remained in existence on only a handful of farms in central Europe.
“We’d been trying to acquire some Mangalitza pigs for some time, but until last year it just wasn’t possible,” says Mr York. “Numbers were very low, export and import restrictions made life difficult, prices were high and transport costs even higher.”
Help came in the form of Christoph Weisner, president of the Mangalitza Pig Breeders’ Association in Austria, an organisation formed in autumn 2000 with the aim of saving the breed and promoting its attributes to a wider audience.
In February 2006, accompanied by vet and pig specialist Jenkin O Davies, Mr York flew to Vienna to meet Mr Weisner. He stepped off the plane into 3ft of snow, icy winds and temperatures plummeting to -20C.
The plan was to seek out the best Mangalitza pigs by visiting farms across Hungary and Austria, buying enough unrelated breeding stock along the way to establish the breed back in Britain.
“It was a mammoth task,” says Mr York. “We knew it would be no good acquiring just one or two pigs and even if we managed to acquire 10 or 12 the transport costs would still be horrendous.”
One cold night, after a 10pm trek with torches creating eerie shadows against the snow, Mr York’s efforts to find “just one more gilt” at last paid off. He had found enough unrelated stock to start building a herd of 17 pigs with three boars.
“Mr Weisner was the most important link in the chain. He helped us source the right animals, organised the blood tests, provided us with accommodation and then drove us hundreds of miles from farm to farm. We couldn’t have done it without him.”
Back in Britain, the project had captured the imagination of Marcus Bates, chief executive of the British Pig Association, who agreed to register the Mangalitzas with final herd book names once used by the Lincolnshire Curly Coat.
A month later, with all the paperwork complete, blood tests carried out and quarantine requirements met, the pigs were imported, arriving at Mr York’s Pig Paradise Farm in Staffordshire, before eventually relocating to Wiltshire.
Work immediately began to find farmers throughout the UK willing to help ensure the long-term security of the breed. Now there are several established breeders in England, as well as herds in Scotland and Wales.
It was at this point that four Mangalitzas found their way to the Lincolnshire Wolds, once the heartland of the Lincolnshire Curly Coat. They were to be the first curly-coated pigs seen in the county since the early 1970s.
“Brian has always wanted pigs,” says Mr Codling’s wife Sylvia. “I’d always refused, but when he found out about the Mangalitzas and their similarities to the Lincolnshire Curly Coat we both thought it was a good idea to bring them back home.”
The British Pig Association now has 48 Mangalitza pigs registered on its books. They might be Austro-Hungarian in origin rather than English, but they do offer a glimpse of our lost farming heritage – and one of our more unusual domestic farm breeds.
“There is a certain amount of genetics in there, but you must remember it doesn’t make them Lincolnshire Curly Coats,” says Dr Dawn Teverson, of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. “It’s important to recognise the Mangalitza breed in its own right.”
It is a breed which could be going places, says award-winning Lincolnshire butcher Jim Sutcliffe. An expert in speciality meat products, he believes the Mangalitza could be ideal for turning into air-dried ham.
“They look to have good back legs on them and the market for high-value ham is growing,” he says. “I can’t really see extra value for the middle pork, but the front end could be made into salami. What’s more, there’s a fantastic story behind the product.”
Tales of the Curly Coat
An old saying states that you can use every part of a pig apart from the squeal – and the Lincolnshire Curly Coat was no exception.