New Pigs and Old Enemies

A very belated Happy New Year to everyone. Christmas 2017 was hectic but good fun. It marked my first one as a Mid-Devon resident.

It also was the first time I cooked Christmas dinner for over 20 people in my new job. I think it was a success! I then had a week of organisation and tidying of my own house, as well as visiting friends and family around the country, before having the parentals over to stay for actual Christmas. Christmas Eve was slightly overshadowed by the glass of our wood burner cracking and falling out. Obviously being a Sunday and Christmas Eve, nowhere was open. So we persevered and heated the house with an open fire, not ideal considering the flue is the wrong shape, so most of the smoke did not escape up the chimney. Cue a collection of sore throats and stinging eyes, not the ideal way to spend the festive season. Despite that, we did have a lovely time, filled with lots of lovely food, good company and far too many presents.

The food was particularly a hit, mainly because of the pork, including sausages and bacon all from our very own rare breed Oxford Sandy and Black pigs. I know I am biased, but the flavour of our hand reared meat was second to none. Making your own ‘pigs in blankets’ for Christmas dinner was certainly an achievement, which we remain very proud of. Also, lots of people received bacon and sausages as Christmas presents from us, which although unusual, I think were received well.

One present that I received, I have to mention, mainly because it involves a future addition to the menagerie. The other half has agreed that at some point this year I can take on an orphan lamb (or two) for fattening. Eeek! It will involve bottle feeding 4 times a day in the beginning, but the cuteness will certainly take over the inconvenience. I’ve asked if it can move into the house temporarily, but this has been met with a firm ‘no’, so it will probably end up in a barn and then out to graze perhaps with our friendly neighbours’ pygmy goats. So watch this space!

The first week of 2018, unfortunately brought us some sadness. Our beloved rare breed Silver Bantam drake, whom we affectionately named ‘Yoda’ due to his beautiful green head, was taken by a fox. This happened in the middle of the day. We had him about 4 years, he was our only unrelated male and life-partner to Princess Layer, our white Silver Bantam female, so we were all devastated.

A few days later, 4 of our chickens also disappeared in the middle of the day. There were so many feathers left behind we were almost sure they’d also all been taken by the fox. I spent a good hour searching nearby fields and although I did find lots of chicken footprints in the mud, alas no chickens were to be found. One of the missing was my favourite cockerel Bow, a massive Cuckoo Maran, but his feathers were the most left behind. I feared the worst and assumed he died trying to protect his girls.

The next morning I was getting ready and I heard my bantam cockerel Rocky conducting his morning crow, and I thought to myself that I am going to miss him and Bow’s duet. Every morning they would have some sort of X-factor battle, trying to out-crow one another. Bow’s crow being much louder and erratic than Rocky’s, almost comical. As if by magic, I then heard Bow’s distinctive crow in the distance! I genuinely thought I was hearing things, but I threw on my coat and wellies and went off to follow his call.

I found him in a neighbouring farm’s barn, proudly stood on a stone wall, crowing in all his magnificent glory. By some miracle, despite losing an awful lot of feathers, he seemed unscathed and only had a couple of scratches on his comb. I think he was happy to see me and calmly let me scoop him up and I reunited him with the rest of the flock. About half and hour later, we then got a phone call from the person who owns the nearby barn, who said she had spotted another very cold looking chicken perched by her car this morning. I went to where she described and sure enough, there was one of our missing Gold Laced Orpingtons, shivering on the floor by the parked cars. Unfortunately she seemed a bit more shaken up than Bow and was not as pleased to see me. After about half an hour of trying to guide/chase her back to our garden, I resorted to using a fishing net to catch her. Whilst carrying her back, I distinctly heard another cluck from a nearby field. Sure enough, missing chicken number 3, one of our buff rock bantam girls, was also in the hedge of the nearby field. Another half an hour of crazy chicken catching, and I had recovered 3 out of the 4 missing chickens! I was so happy! They were clearly chased and dispersed by our familiar old enemy, and I imagine that the remaining missing Black Maran, was not quite fast enough to escape Fantastic Mr Fox.

The next few days we kept the entire flock (now reduced to 18) inside their enclosure, whilst we came up with a plan of action. We considered electric fencing, but it is expensive, not completely fox proof (nothing is!) and also would not only electrify the foxes, but also the chickens, ducks and our inquisitive dogs. Woody our lab cross is already petrified of the pig fence (after being shocked a couple of times) and won’t go anywhere near the woodland, I don’t want him scared of going into his own back garden. Luckily (or unluckily) a few nights later, Mr Fox did return, for the last time. Whether that fox was the fox that killed our chicken and duck, we won’t ever know, but what we do know is that there is more than one fox out there, but there is now one less. I appreciate that we are living in the foxes territory, I appreciate that they need to eat. But there are so many pheasants, rabbits and other rodents to feed them in their natural environment, they do not need to take our livestock. It is an emotive issue so I won’t say anymore on the subject.

Finishing on a lighter note, the New Year brought us new pigs. Three Large Black weaners. These rare breed native pigs are rarer than the Siberian Tiger, with less than 200 breeding sows in this country. They are often referred to as the Cornish Black, as the breed’s origins are from Devon and Cornwall. They are also referred to as the ‘elephant pig’ because new born piglets resemble tiny elephants because of their large ears and straight tails. Their hair is unusually fine, soft and silky in comparison to other breeds of pig.

We have wanted this breed ever since we decided we wanted to keep pigs, but we found it difficult to obtain the pigs locally. We still had to travel over an hour to get these ones, but I’m sure you’ll agree they’re absolutly worth it. We have had them about a week and they have settled in nicely and are getting used to the electric fence, but they are loving snuffling around in the undergrowth and are already fans of belly scratches. I have spent most of the last week in bed with the flu, so I am looking forward to getting better and spending a bit more time with my baby elephants…I mean pigs!

New arrivals

We have new pigs! On Thursday, we went to pick up our new weaners; three Oxford Sandy and Black gilts (girls). It’s been a weird few weeks without pigs. Part of me has enjoyed the fact that there is one less set of animals to look after, and it’s given me an extra 20 minutes in bed every morning. I have missed them though.
Oxford Sandy and Blacks are another rare breed pig and we decided to go for three girls this time, to see if there was any difference in temperament. They were a bit wary of us to begin with, but that is natural and we are giant predators to them whilst they are so small. The more time we spend with them, the more they will feel relaxed around us. They are ridiculously cute. 

I had some friends up for the weekend and it was nice to have some female company and catch up with my besties. Where we live is quite rural and I haven’t had the time to make any friends locally. Although there are people at work I get on with, it’s not the same as having your best friends round for a cuppa/glass of wine. 

Although we have eaten some of our own sausages and pork chops from our British Lops, I hadn’t cooked anything fancy with the meat. So last night, whilst consuming copious amounts of prosecco, I cooked some pork belly for the girls. I used a recipe from the River Cottage Handbook No.14; Pigs and Pork by Gill Meller. Gill is a chef at River Cottage, but also writes and promotes rare breeds, buying high welfare pork and raising your own. It went down a treat.

I am currently reading the above book, which not only comtains recipes, it also talks about pork, the associated farming industry and hints and tips about pig keeping. At the beginning of the book there is a very stark description of a life of a pig in an intensive farming environment. When I read it, I cried. It just really struck a cord with me, having just experienced raising pigs in a smallholder environment and us ensuring the highest possible welfare. Not all pigs are afforded this luxury. The more I read about what happens in intensive farming, the more passionate I become about what I’m doing. Not only with my pigs, but plans for the future and becoming more self-sufficient. Below are a few quotes taken from the book, which contains detailed descriptions of what pigs go through during intensive farming, and I have only highlighted a small amount of the ‘discomfort and psychological stress’ these pigs experience. If you are interested, please give it a read, I would highly recommend expanding your knowledge of this if you are a meat eater.

“We kill around 10 million pigs a year in Britain, 70% of which have been intensively farmed. That’s bad enough, but only 30% of the pork we eat in this country actually comes from British pigs. The rest is imported – from countries where welfare standards, in many cases, are so low they would be illegal in Britain……a breeding sow within this system spends her life confined on concrete, pregnant and unable to move naturally….her piglets are forcibly removed before their immune systems have developed….a short but torturous life of frustration, antibiotics and aggression ensues. Intensive pig farming has been shown to affect our health….drug resistant bacteria & hyper-viral pathogens pass from pig farms directly to us via pollution of the water course the spreading of slurry on fields and the crops we eat, even through the air we breathe.”

This is pretty terrifying stuff. But Gill ensures the reader that if us as consumers reject low quality, budget meat and only choose high welfare pork and other meats, farmers will be forced to improve their farming methods. It has certainly made me think twice, and I now try my hardest to avoid supermarket meat. But if I genuinely can’t, I don’t begrudge paying that little bit extra and buying organic or free-range products. I can then sleep well at night, knowing I’ve contributed to making the world of food production a better place, not just meat, but all food produce. 

Sorry for the rant, but if this blog helps my friends, family and other followers think more about the food they eat, I feel I’ve achieved something. It is important to spread the word and talk about this, rather than trying not to think about where your meat comes from, and what sort of life it’s had. Part of my grand plan of becoming a smallholder is raising awareness. I think we all have a responsibility to do this. This blog helps, but it’s reach is limited. So, I have got in contact with an editor of a magazine called ‘Practical Pigs’ (it too also has a limited audience!) but it is one step closer to getting the message out there. I can’t say too much at this stage, but watch this space!

Anyway, enough about pigs. In other news, my Silver bantam duck hatched five healthy, fluffy yellow ducklings a couple of days ago. Like the pigs, they too are massive time-wasters. All weekend myself, my partner and friends have spent time ogling at how cute they are. They don’t stay small for long, so it is important to waste as much time as possible with them. It certainly has a de-stressing effect on me, so why the hell not. One of our other ducks, a Miniature Silver Appleyard, is also sitting on a nest of eggs, due in a couple of weeks, so I have that to look forward to as well.

Lastly, our foster chicken Andi, returned after an absence of about three weeks. I had resigned myself to the fact that she had been eaten by a fox. Not only because that is a high possibility in the countryside, but because I found a dead chicken outside of our local foxhole recently. I had to do a double take, as I had a sinking feeling that it was one of our chickens. It wasn’t, but it was obviously someone else’s chicken. We don’t have any nearby neighbours that keep chickens, the nearest would be over a mile away. Clearly not far for a hungry fox. Despite the fact there are an abundance of pheasants to satisfy their appetite, I guess the lure of chickens is far too much for them to resist.

I have very conflicting feelings about this issue. On the one hand, I do not want a fox to kill my beloved birds and would happily let my other half dispatch him if it came close to doing so. This is unlike me. If the fox crept in at night and stealthily took one chicken to share with its fox family for dinner, I could get over that. What I can’t accept, is the fact that they will kill every single one of my birds given half the chance and then only take one away with them. This upsets me. But I also accept that it is part of nature, and part of living in the countryside. Survival of the fittest at its best. We are living in the fox’s natural environment. Building houses, keeping fowl and unwittingly taunting the fox into being inquisitive enough to see what all that squawking and quacking is all about. It is instinctive behaviour, it is only doing what it was born to do. That doesn’t mean I must like or accept it. Hence the conflicting feelings of hate, but begrudging acceptance, that one day, a fox will inevitably kill one or all my flock. It is unfortunately a risk we take, despite the fact we do all we can to prevent it from happening with several safety measures in place. I’ve yet to see a fox out here, but my other half saw one in a field, in broad daylight. The time when my flock free ranges in our garden. As I said, it is an inevitable consequence of keeping chickens and ducks, but I hope for Mr Fox’s sake, he doesn’t try and do it when my other half is at home!

To end on a happy note, the hedgehogs that were washed up in the storm from my last blog post, did come back to visit us. I managed to capture one eating the dog food I left out. The video is on my Instagram page @andthentherewerepigs but here is a screen shot of the spikey little snuffler. Spring watch, eat your heart out.

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.


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.



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.


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.



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.