The Berkswell herd is 75-years-old. Sue Rider joined in the birthday celebration and found out why the Wheatley-Hubbard family have favoured the Tamworth breed for so long
COULD it be the tasty bacon and succulent ham that has kept one Tamworth pig herd in business for 75 years? Or is it just the high spirited nature of this rare breed pig?
Talk to the owners of what is the second oldest pig herd in the country and it is clear that it is more than just philanthropic reasons which give the Berkswell herd its board and lodgings at the Wheatley-Hubbards Boyton Farms, Codford, Warminster, Wilts.
Increasing demand for food that tastes good is now helping support this traditional orchard pig that entered the Rare Breed Survival Trusts critical list because modern shoppers have preferred leaner meat.
"The trouble is the modern housewife has not liked fat. But Tamworth bacon and ham tastes of something, and I am of the generation that appreciates that," explains Anne Wheatley-Hubbard.
It was her grandfather, Joshua Wheatley, who founded the Berkswell herd in Warwickshire in 1922 and present day pigs trace back to the first pedigree sow bought by Mr Wheatley.
At a recent open day to celebrate the herds 75th birthday, Anne Wheatley-Hubbards daughter-in-law Caroline explained how changing consumer attitudes to meat eating quality were influencing how they now marketed pork and bred the herd.
"Our Tamworths were sold from the back door in the late 1980s, with sausages and cooked frozen meals using up joints others did not want," she explained.
But now she and her husband, Thomas, have started marketing their own meat, selling two pigs a week as welfare-friendly reared Tamworth pork to a High Street butcher in Warminster.
Caroline accepts that with just 20 sows, four boars, and eight gilts, their herd is small by commercial standards, although it represents 8% of the national herd, and any meat marketing opportunities would be limited. But she believes the good eating quality of Tamworth meat means it is as well placed as any to compete.
Research at Bristol University on the eating quality of pork from traditional breeds backs up her views: Tamworth joints were the tastiest.
But providing a constant supply of Tamworth meat at Boyton Farms has meant farrowing sows more regularly, rather than when it has suited the showing season, as has been the case.
"Even with the numbers we have, it is difficult to keep up the show pigs and keep the meat pigs going. We will continue to show, however, because it is our shop window, and it is fun, too."
Tamworths, which have red bristles and the "livelier" nature often associated with redheads, can be challenging to show, recalls Anne Wheatley-Hubbard, who has chased many showring escapees in her time.
Once a judge herself, and pleased to see a fifth generation of Wheatley-Hubbards now showing pigs, she said she judged on what she liked to eat. "That means I look for a good side of bacon and a good ham. And a sow has to rear a litter, so needs a good underline, and she must be able to walk," she adds.
But despite the progress being made with the meat marketing and the fun of showing these pigs, genetic conservation is what it is all about.
"Given that there are only 300 pedigree Tamworth pigs in the country and 40% of last years registrations had a Berkswell parent, we have a responsibility to the breed," says Caroline, who is Tamworth representative on the RBST and co-ordinates a breed survey for them. The surveys began in 1987 when there were 100 sows and 33 boars; there are now 230 sows and 73 boars, with over 200 registrations each year.
Clearly, the breed is not off the critical list, but it has a good future provided there is a niche market for the meat and enough breeders interesting in preserving its genetics.
Contented, extensively reared Tamworth pigs from the Berkswell herd – and their pork tastes
Three generations of Wheatley-Hubbard: (L to R) Thomas, Anne, Christopher and Caroline, and two Tamworth sows, part of the 75-year-old herd they keep at Boyton Farms.
Purebred rare breed meat is now available from 13 specialist butchers across the country. All are part of the traditional breeds meat marketing scheme and are accredited by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust which guarantees the meat is from purebred, rare breed stock.
Scheme organiser Brian Lloyd-James reports a healthy demand for the meat from customers who value all the old-fashioned virtues of succulence, tenderness and flavour. "There is a little more fat than in commercial pork, and that is where the tenderness and succulence comes from," he points out.
Whats so important about the scheme is that it provides a market for non-breeding stock, and this in turn encourages more breeders to conserve them, he says. "Rare breeds will only get rarer if we cant sell the meat." Its encouraging that demand is now outstripping supply which is obviously limited because the pigs are rare, explains Mr Lloyd-James.
"People are starting to appreciate that less intensively reared pigs taste better." Breeders benefit too, he adds.
Since the scheme started three years ago, the price paid for pork or bacon from rare breeds has been above the MLC price. Anyone interested in selling pigs through the meat marketing scheme or wanting details of their nearest butcher selling rare breed meat, should contact Brian Lloyd-James (01527-570765) or Richard Lutwyche of the RBST (01203-696551).