Bringing home the bacon, sort of

On Monday, I went to work as normal. But it wasn’t a normal day. It was the day I sent my pigs to slaughter. Sounds horrible, doesn’t it? So harsh. So final. Well obviously, it is. But it was something that we knew we would have to do and had somewhat prepared ourselves for it.

The night before, myself and my partner talked through how we felt. Shitty, I think was the word that came to mind. Like we were betraying their trust. It was a sombre evening, but we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel a little bit emotional about the whole thing.

They were loaded up into the trailer the following morning. There was a bit of apprehension from them at first. Even though we had talked about it, we didn’t get around to leaving the trailer up at the woodland a few days before so they could get used to it. They were eventually coaxed in with their breakfast trough, and once one of them was hungry enough to venture inside, the others followed suit. They were really relaxed during the journey and went to sleep amongst the copious bales of straw. When they opened the trailer at the abattoir, the guy even said “Wow, looks like you’ve got yourself a pig hotel in there!”. I’m pleased he thought so, because their final journey was important to us.

6

They ambled out of the trailer and down a little corridor to where they go into a holding pen. Apparently, they were just sniffing the floor and completely oblivious to the whole scenario. I’ve talked about the slaughter process in a previous blog post, but essentially, they are stunned unconscious first, and then the deed is done. It’s quick and lasts only a few seconds. My other half didn’t hang around, and far as we’re aware, they had a swift and dignified death.

When the owner of the abattoir first saw the pigs, he said they were small. Not too small, still at slaughter weight, but they were lean and not big enough for bacon. During our research, we were under the impression that pigs get up to ‘porker’ weight between 18-20 weeks old, ‘baconers’ you should take up to 24 weeks. Ours were just over 21 weeks, and I thought, what difference would a few weeks make? Apparently, a lot. In fact, because our pigs were rare breeds, they are what is referred to as ‘slow growers’, so they take a lot longer to get to bacon weight. The guy said they needed to be twice as big. I thought they were pretty big as they were, but having seen pigs at different ages at the Devon County Show, I suppose they weren’t as big as some. For bacon, we should look to get them anywhere between 8 and 10 months old, which is at least 3 months more than what we slaughtered them at. At least we know for next time, and considering we were first time pig-keepers, I don’t think we did too badly. We just need fatter pigs!

Instead of bacon, we got a lot of joints, leg, belly, shoulder, chops, a handful of sausages and the offal. Personally, we don’t eat offal. My other half might have a go at making some liver pâté but I think the rest will probably be given to the dogs a treat. We are also going to make our own sausages and burgers now that BBQ season is fast approaching. We’ve got the equipment on order and a guide from Hugh Fearnely-Whittingstall, what could go wrong?! I’ll keep you posted.

5.png

4.png

This morning we sampled the first of the sausages, and boy were they good. They say there isn’t a taste comparable to that of raising your own meat, and they are right. But I think that’s because it’s not all about the taste. When you raise livestock, you know where the animal has been, what it’s eaten, how it’s been treated, literally from birth till death. That knowledge is a wonderful thing. Your taste is affected by various things; how a dish looks, smells and in our case, the story behind it. All of that contributed to a very enjoyable breakfast! The eggs on the plate were also from our own chickens, so half of the meal was from animals we had raised ourselves, which is pretty damn satisfying if you ask me.

1

When we moved to the country, part of the plan was to become more self-sufficient. We are making progress and the next stage is getting the vegetable patch up and running. This will not get done for a while yet, considering how much we have got on currently, but it is most certainly on that very long to-do list!

Part of the reason why I love the countryside so much, is the animals. Whether that’s the farming side of things or local wildlife. I was only reading the other day about hedgehogs and how to encourage them into your garden and how seeing one is a pretty rare thing, due to their numbers being in decline. I have only see a hedgehog once in a garden, and lets just say, Billy the dog got there first and it didn’t end well, for either of them. The hedgehog didn’t make it and Billy ended up with a face full of spikes. Not ideal.

So, I was pleasantly surprised after a scorching hot day of sunshine, followed by a spectacular thunder and lightning show overnight from mother nature, that I discovered two adult hedgehogs in my garden this morning. Well, Billy discovered them, but this time he was far more cautious and just whined in their general direction, rather than going in for the kill.

2

3

It is unusual to see hedgehogs in the daytime. To be fair, although it was light, it was still only 6am (no lie ins when you have a cockerel in your back garden), so I guess they were probably in the midst of making their way back home, when Billy disturbed them. I had considered that they might be thirsty considering the temperature, so left out a shallow bowl of water for them and retreated inside to give them some room. I watched from the bedroom window and the chickens began to notice them too, which worried me slightly as I didn’t want them getting injured. I left it about half an hour and when I went back down, with a pouch of wet dog food I had dug out of the cupboard, I found they had gone. Part of me was pleased, as it meant they were healthy happy hedgehogs who had gone home safe to their nest, but part of me was slightly disappointed that my house didn’t need to be converted into a hedgehog hospital just yet. Maybe next time.

My other half has got a trail camera, so tonight I decided to set it up outside, near to where the hedgehogs were this morning. I took out some more water and the dog food (milk and bread upsets their tummy so wet dog/cat food is something they like). As we were leaving to go back inside, I heard a sort of prolonged huffing from the hedge a bit further down. We shone the torch about and low and behold Mr and Mrs Hedgehog were in there! We waited around for a bit, but decided it was best to leave them to it and hopefully the trail cam will pick up any nocturnal activity. How exciting! I will keep you all posted.

Advertisements

Happy endings and new beginnings

So today was the last morning that I will get to feed our three British Lop pigs. Tomorrow they will be taken to the abbatoir at 21 weeks, and turned into food for our table. We had to re-tag them with our herd number and individual pig identification numbers in order to move them legally. This is sort of like ear-piercing back when I had mine done in the 90’s. Although on a much larger scale. You ever tried to pierce a pigs ear? Yeah, harder than it sounds! Distracting them with food is key and my other half and colleague did a grand job of it, despite Stumpy (our most boisterous pig) being a tad difficult to handle! I think the moral of that story is to ear tag your pigs as young as possible, where they are slightly easier to manage. Oh and don’t choose a pig because of it’s Stumpy tail, thinking it’s going to be the cute little runt…in our case it was the complete opposite!


In summary, our trio of pigs have been an absolute pleasure to raise and of course I am sad to see them go. I’m not completely heartless, I’ve loved those pigs and they certainly knew it. In fact they took advantage of that more often than not! Just so you know, when a 100kg pig jumps on your back when you bend down to scratch a belly of another, you know about it!

They have been fun, mischievous and they’ve taught me so much. Not just about pig-keeping, but about the whole process about raising animals to eat. I’d like to think I’ve given them a good life and in some ways a good death. Death is something that comes to every living thing and without getting too in depth about my experiences, I think what matters is making the most of the life you’ve been given. Being happy is key to that, because you never know what is round the corner. I think these guys have had a life a lot of pigs would dream of and every bacon sandwich I make from them, I will appreciate more than any meat I will ever purchase from the supermarket. To be grateful and humbled by the food you eat is not something that we tend to think about much as consumers, but this experience has certainly made me feel both.

With every ending there is a new beginning and this weekend we went to see the pigs that will be replacing our British Lops. We decided on a different rare breed called the Oxford Sandy and Black. It is a similar size and weight to the British Lop, still a lop eared breed, but their markings make them quite distinctive. The breeders were kind enough to let us visit and meet the piglet’s mother Florence and her eight piglets. She was a lovely pig and with this being her first litter, they said she has been an excellent mother. She was very calm and relaxed with us being there and even posed for a selfie with me, giving me a bit of a lick in the process!

We will be getting them in about three weeks and this time have opted for three gilts (pig speak for girls) instead of boars, to see if there is a difference in behaviour and to experience raising both genders. I can’t wait.

You may remember our first lot of chicks that hatched in the incubator. They are now outside and doing well. I am in the process of switching them from eating chick crumb, to grower pellets. We have been currently waiting on another batch of eggs in the incubator, which hatched a couple of days ago. Out of six eggs we had five hatch successfully and they seem to be doing well. They are a mix of Maran’s and Orpingtons, both quite large breeds of chicken. They all have slightly different markings to each other, which is great because at least this time we can tell them apart, as the last lot looked pretty identical! I am determined to handle these guys more and they seem slightly less terrified of me already.

When chickens are young they are still very vulnerable to their surroundings. Heat plays a huge part in this, too little or too much can cause problems. One chick in both batches of chicks I’ve hatched, has suffered from something called ‘pasting’. This is when their poop dries up before it’s passed properly and can clog up their cloaca (the opening in which they pass waste and also lay eggs, if they’re girls). Both of the chicks that experienced this were the youngest and last to hatch, so it could be a combination of being the ‘runt’ or that the dry heat from the heat lamp has affected them the most. Sometimes it’s caused by lack of drinking, despite having access to plenty of water, some chicks are a bit slower than most to learn they need to drink as well as eat! Pasting is very easy to manage if you are keeping a close eye on them, some warm water and cotton buds usually does the trick to clean them up. Last time it only lasted a couple of days before they started drinking properly and everything returned to normal. Other than that, they all seem to be happy little chicks!

The Devon County Show was this week and we decided to go and give it a visit. I have recently joined the Rare Breed Survival Trust, which does it’s bit to promote and advocate rare breeds. What with the rare breed British Lops, soon to be OSB’s and also our Silver Bantam ducks, it seemed logical to get involved with the society. I went to visit the RBST tent at the show, introduced myself and will be hopefully helping out on the stand at the Mid Devon Show in July, which is round the corner from where we live.

We had a great day, saw lots of animals I resisted the temptation to buy, and ate and bought lots of yummy local produce. It certainly has given me the prompt I needed to take my smallholding dreams and make them a reality. I have lots of ideas about breeding programmes and making produce to sell, but it’s mostly about having the time and the money to do it all. Slowly slowly catch a monkey as they say! There’s lots to learn and I have the time and space to do it, but it is a bit like this blog, the book I am writing and the gazillion and one other things I want to do. Less procrastination, more doing is my summertime plan!

But first, I need to get through the large amount of cheese we purchased!

 

How to make friends and influence…chickens

It’s been a busy few weeks since my last post, so I thought I would do a quick update. Work and home life are battling for my attention at the moment and it’s tough juggling both. It is tiring, but also rewarding too, so I can’t complain too much.

The chicks are now at 4 weeks old and almost fully feathered. I expected the weather to be a bit warmer than it has been, so the chicks have only been outside a handful of times when it is sunny, but they seem to enjoy it.


As much as I love the chicks, unfortunately they hate me. Well it’s not just me, it’s all human contact. Which is a shame considering that I am their adopted mother, but I have only got myself to blame. When they were first hatched I was terrified of accidently killing them. Ensuring that they were not too cold was paramount to this. I was worried that if I opened the lid of the broody box they were all going to die. Extreme I know and probably unjustified. This meant I didn’t really handle them much for the first few weeks, if not at all. When I did handle them, it was very briefly to change their bedding or for a quick photo opportunity. I have since realised I did not interact with them half as much as I should’ve in those first few days, in order for them not to be terrified of me.

I see them everyday, I talk to them, feed them and ensure they’re kept warm. But every time I go near their cage they squeal in terror and fly about the place, hitting the roof and going mental. Brilliant. This was not the crazy chicken lady relationship I thought that we would have. I had visions of them perched on my shoulder, eating out of my hand and giving me hugs like that YouTube video of the chicken hugging the small boy. I want that goddammit! So I’ve tried a new tactic. Mealworms. It’s like chocolate/crack to chickens. The first time I offered the chicks a meal worm, they just stared at it all huddled together, looking at it like it was laced with poison. My other half assured me that these things take time. But how long? Days, weeks, months?! I wanted instant results. Well I didn’t get them. But I am getting somewhere. They are now tentatively eating some of the mealworms I hold inside the cage. Some are more confident than others. It’s baby steps but I think in time they will come round to the fact that I am not that scary. Most of the time anyway. Let’s hope the new chicks waiting to hatch will like me more! Only 48 hours to go!

Duck jail update: After persevering with keeping Princess Leia in the enclosure with only one place to lay, we finally have a broody duck! Well, we had a broody duck before, but now we have a broody duck in a safe place that we can keep an eye on. She seems happy enough and in about 28 (ish) days, hopefully we’ll have a few ducklings. Unfortunately she has only nested about 5 eggs (on previous occasions she’s gathered up to 13 eggs before sitting!) so there is a chance she’ll hatch none. Which will be a real shame and I’m tempted to incubate some of her fellow duck’s eggs in the incubator so that if none of hers hatch, we have back-ups. I’ll keep you posted!


As for the pigs, it’s been such an awesome 3 months, I am obviously going to be sad to see these porkers go. They are always so pleased to see me, mostly because they see me as a food source (figuratively and literally) but they have brought joy to not only myself but to the local community that live in and around the estate too. In rural Devon you can’t keep much secret, not in a community as small as this. So we have had a lot of visitors to the pigs, who have heard about them and it’s lovely. I saw one of the local farmers and his son drive up on their quad bike this evening. I introduced myself and he said he takes his son (about 3 years old) to see the pigs everyday. So it’s nice to know they are getting something out of it too.





We have arranged for some replacement pigs, some Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, which will be ready end of May/beginning of June. These are also considered a rare breed. There will be about a week between the British Lops leaving and the OSB’s arriving. So we won’t be long without pigs.

These aren’t actually the piglets we’re getting, but an example of what ours will look like!


In other news, we will be going to the Devon County Show on Thursday which will hopefully be a lovely day out (keep your fingers crossed for the weather!). We were regulars are the Romsey Show every year without fail and I have actually offered to help out on the Rare Breed Survival Trust’s stand at the Mid Devon show in June, so looking forward to that too. It’s tough integrating yourself into the local community when we live in such an isolated area, but we’re getting there!

Let’s see if we can come home empty handed! #animaladdiction