This year the Oxford Sandy and Black Pig Society celebrates its 10th anniversary.
Tessa Gates met the chairman Catriona Cook, who chose the breed for its eating qualities and hardiness rather than
its good looks
CATRIONA Cook has been chairman of the Oxford Sandy and Black Pig Society for three years but she became involved with the breed before she knew about the society, which was formed in 1985.
"I bought my first two from someone I gave a lift to from Scarborough Fair. We ate Gladys and kept Elsie," explains Catriona, who runs a free-range pork enterprise at Burgate Farm, Harwood Dale, North Yorks, where her husband John farms 122ha (300 acres) in partnership with his parents. "John has 180 cows, and we fatten everything," she adds.
"I stopped buying pork well over 20 years ago because I thought it was tasteless," she says. "I tried fattening the odd white and a few saddlebacks on commercial feed but found they were just as bad." The taste of Gladys, however, whetted her appetite for more Oxford Sandy and Blacks and so she set out to find a mate for Elsie.
"I had this pig and was looking for a husband for it and a man rang up and said, what makes you think you have an Oxford Sandy and Black? It was Andrew Sheppey, founder of the society."
It is a question that is often asked because the breed, which is thought to have been developed 200 years ago in Oxfordshire, declined dramatically in the 1940s when only one or two boars were being licensed each year. In 1985 a group of enthusiasts, realising that the survival of the breed depended on proper documentation, founded the society. Breed standards were set and all stock inspected and recorded.
Today there are 150 breeding females and 50 boars and the society has over 70 members. But the Oxford Sandy and Black is not listed by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust as it doesnt meet the Trusts acceptance criteria.
While still looking for a boar, Catriona acquired another gilt. She kept writing to the society, which kept writing back, but there were only two boars doing the rounds at the time – and none in her end of the country. Then someone from Southampton offered to meet her with a boar half way up the motorway.
"I didnt think that trying to back my trailer up to their trailer on a motorway services area was a very good idea so in the end they said I could have the trailer as well," says Catriona, recounting hilarious conversations about ball size as she ascertained whether or not the towing equipment would fit.
Elsie had two litters from the boar, and over the years Catriona has built up a reputation for tasty pork with crackling that really "crackles". She fattens her pork slowly for six to seven months on washings, grass, barley and minerals.
"I never think I know much about pigs. I read everything from old textbooks of the 1950s, and that is just how I want to keep them. My vets bills are nil, apart from worming."
"We have to work at selling the pork, many people today are not used to buying a side. We usually get new customers going on joints and sausages and then suggest it would be cheaper if they bought a side," says Catriona, who charges £1.25/lb for a side of pork, and £2/lb for joints.
"I want to be in range of the family budget as I believe that the food you are brought up on dictates what you eat in the future. The knowledge of food seems to be gone – I learnt mine from my father who would hunt out good food."
"We have two types of customer, those interested in flavour, and those interested in welfare. We get a lot of customers who come to the area to visit Scarborough and we can send some things by post*. We fatten about 50 pigs a year, sending four to slaughter at a time, and a local butcher joints them for me. Turnover was around £5000 last year."
Although she is founder member of the breed society, Catriona had never been to a breed show until she became chairman. "I though I had better put my head above the parapet and enter my animals. Trouble is, I fatten my pigs very slowly, and although some of my progeny, sold to others, had won prizes, mine hadnt been fed for showing."
Now armed with the knowledge of what is expected from a show pig, Catriona enjoys show success with animals from her Clockswood herd. "I do it for fun, and it helps to sell the pedigree stock," she admits.
She is particular who she sells to. "I wont sell in-pig gilts to newcomers, I want them to start by fattening rather than breeding. You see a lot of people going in and out of keeping pigs because pigs are difficult."
She would like to see more young people keeping Oxford Sandy and Blacks and joining the society. She cites the attributes of the breed as hardiness, even temper, and good mothering ability.
"When I used to fatten those white shivery things they were awful. I dont need to use heat lamps with these. The pork has an excellent flavour and all the running around outdoors affects the muscles and makes it eat better," she explains.
She advises anyone wanting to know more about the breed to join the society (telephone 01926-429328). "It is essential for breeding purposes, and members really do help each other."
*For pork inquiries tel: 01723 870333
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust does not recognise the Oxford Sandy and Black pig. Geneticist Lawrence Alderson explains why.
"Basically there was a breed of that name that became extinct in the mid to late 1960s. It re-emerged, or something with the same name, by taking various breeds and producing something that looks like it.
"We are in communication with the Oxford Sandy and Black Society and respect what it is doing, but at this stage we are not satisfied with the genetic integrity of the pigs and they would not pass our rare breeds acceptance procedure."
Pigs from Catriona Cooks Clockswood herd enjoy an outdoor life. Clockswood Elsie (below) with some of her 14 piglets which show off the breeds colouring which varies from pale sand to rust with random black blotches.
Catriona finds the breed hardy and prolific but advises newcomers to start by fattening pigs rather than trying to become breeders.