Breed’s winning formula assures the future of one of our rarest pigs

An icy autumn easterly wind is cutting across Cambs as Brian Upchurch prepares to leave Greenway Farm, Steeple Morden, destined for Milton Keynes, where his two greyhounds are running.

It’s a fascinating insight to the rich and varied lifestyle of the current chairman of the British Lop Pig Society.

He’s kept pigs for more than 50 years, but also has strong rural connections including track dogs and point-to-point horses.

“I didn’t set out to have pigs, but friends kept them and seemed to make money so I thought – I’ll have some of that,” he says with genuine congeniality.

This one time contractor entered farming more than 40 years ago with wife, Celia, and admits Lops weren’t his first choice.

“As was fashionable at the time, dad and I had pedigree Welsh – about 38 sows at the peak – right up to the price crash in the ’70/’80s.”

And with that, losses on the small family business couldn’t be sustained, so they decided to sell the herd.

It wasn’t until some years later when out exercising point-to-pointers that the interest in pigs rekindled.

“Out from a hedge popped these sturdy-looking black piglets.

I contacted the owner and we kept a few for showing locally – it was good to have pigs back.”

Clearly a man who enjoys the show ring equally for its banter, camaraderie and competition, Mr Upchurch is under no illusion of its most valuable purpose.

“It’s your shop window.

Prize winning is marketing and that generates income for breeding stock.”

So where did the British Lop feature?

Black-skinned pigs were a victim of their own breeding with butchers paying less – dark-skinned joints just didn’t appeal to consumers, he says.

“It was evident when you looked at weaner sales.

Black pigs always made about 5 apiece less than white-skinned breeds, so a change was on the cards.”

The Lop had generated interest from the show circuit. Its docile nature, mothering instinct and larger litter all appealed.

But there had to be a commercial slant to the breed.

“It took some time to convince our local butcher, Steve Wilde, to take them.

I’d been doing half-pigs for the freezer for a while, but he just didn’t click with the traditional, native bit,” he says.

A turning point came when British Lops featured in the butcher’s window.

“Those that bought early on just kept coming back for more and he’s now taking all we’ve got.”

Although there are muted differences between supporters of modern and native genotypes, Mr Upchurch still believes slow maturing Lops have time to lay down intramuscular fat providing all-important flavour for meat.

“It’s that which generates popularity with consumers,” he says.

“We finish Lops outdoors at about 16-17 weeks and unlike other native breeds they don’t just lay down a great layer of fat that consumers don’t want.”

As with all breeders the real income comes from live sales.

The success of the show circuit at local and county level up to the dizzy heights of the Royal Show – most latterly with the Harmony female lines – has brought in the orders for Mr Upchurch.

“I’ve had boars at stud in Ireland with some semen exported to the USA, as well as private buyers looking to set up small herds.”

With the British Lop now recognised among the rarest of breeds – there are 200 registered females and 35 boars – he remains committed to supporting its survival.

“I don’t think we’ll change. The combination of docility, mothering ability and litter size should be a winning formula.”