Pig under the weather

Had an eventful couple of days last weekend. At about five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, James and I headed down to the end of the garden to feed the pigs and were immediately alarmed at the bedraggled appearance of the friendliest one, which also happens to have a large number of freckly markings, so is easily picked out. His coat was out of condition, he had mucus around his snout and a small boil had suddenly grown on his neck – but the most alarming aspect of his behaviour was that he simply stood his front trotters in the drinker with part of his mouth under the water while the other two gobbled down their tea. He wouldn’t even eat an apple and instead retreated to sleep in the ark.

Our friendliest, fleckliest pig, who needed some attention last weekend
Our friendliest, fleckliest pig, who needed some attention last weekend

Just that morning he’d looked in the pink of health – just hours later and he seemed to be at death’s door. After making a fuss of him, we headed back indoors to consult our Haynes manual, in which I couldn’t find a likely sounding condition, so I sent out an SOS Tweet to ask for help and called our very friendly breeders, Dave and Linda, to ask if they’d ever come across something similar themselves. Sadly, they hadn’t, but were just as concerned as we were. Then, I embarked on the very foolish activity of Googling the poorly pig’s symptoms – a mistake I won’t be repeating, as most convincing diagnosis appeared to be anthrax. Anthrax! This made for an extremely tense evening as I was not only fearful for the life of our Oxford Sandy & Black but also our own. Long, hot showers to try and rid ourselves of any bacteria didn’t do anything to ease the mind, of course, and we went to bed that night feeling very anxious indeed.

In the morning, Linda rang to check in on the patient and I asked for their vet’s number, aware that a Sunday call out would be hideously expensive but by this stage, as he was just the same, we were worried that the little guy might not make it till Monday. I rang Rachel Helm of  Hammond Vets, recommended as an expert with pigs in particular, and she said she’d be over as soon as possible – I was delighted! And all the way from Hertford (the best part of an hour to us). Shortly after, I spoke to Robert at Buttle Farm in Wiltshire, who had responded to my Tweet and reassured me that pigs can recover just as quickly as they deteriorate and advised to ask the vet for antibiotics that we can keep on standby in our fridge for any instances in the future (this was a great tip as Rachel has sent us a sachet by post, which should last us for ever, apparently).

The old piggery has holes at the bottom of both sides of wall to allow pigs to out their heads through and eat from the troughs that would have been beyond

We headed down to the run with Rachel when she arrived at around 10am and found the pig in his ark sleeping. We winkled him out of the straw so she could observe him and she saw that he was looking decidedly ropey. He had all the signs of having a cold, she said, and then the penny dropped: we’d had thunderstorms directly overhead on both Friday and Saturday morning – heavy rain, fork lightning, claps of thunder – the works. Rachel’s suspicions that he’d likely got caught out and became wet and cold were confirmed when she took his temperature, after a chase around the run (he suddenly became very lively when she brought the thermometer out). A couple of jabs later and Rachel was confident that he’d make a full recovery. “I know this sounds funny, but is there anywhere in the house you can keep him?” she said. Our place is a semi-renovated rather messy affair, but even we weren’t ready to let a pig into it! Then we had a flash of inspiration: the old piggery near the house! We’ve never dreamed of keeping animals in it before due to the concrete floor and lack of a proper run, but the structure (which was built with the council smallholding back in 1914) was ideal as a porcine sanatorium as it also contains our dog kennel. Bingo.

We filled it with straw, rigged up a warming lamp under which the patient could sleep and furnished it with a feeder and drinker. All we needed to do now was get the surprisingly stubborn creature from the pig run to the house. After a few futile attempts with some wooden boards, James decided to pick him up and carry him like a dog and, despite a few grunts and some twitchy trotters, the pig obliged and settled into his new home beautifully.

I tinted this picture due to the infrared lamp turning everything pink
I tinted this picture due to the infrared lamp turning everything pink

I’m happy to say that James escorted him down the garden to rejoin his mates after putting some weight back on and showing all the signs of a healthy happy pig. This time, he ran down the garden, either side of the pieces of wood James used to funnel him that way. The trio were reunited without a scrap of difficulty and are, as I type, rootling about in the undergrowth together. Phew-y.

Brief encounter


The hens often look wistfully through the fence that divides them and the three Oxford Sandy & Blacks. It’s not that the grass is greener – in fact, the pig run is mostly covered in thistles, nettles, comfrey and the occasional bramble – there’s barely a blade to be seen. But the hens can glimpse all the bugs and other treasures that the porcine trio turn over as they rotovate the land with their magnificent and powerful snouts, rootling free.  I have a special fondness for that word as it’s my CL nickname – like to think I’ve attracted that moniker for it’s similarities with my Christian name and that it suggests journalistic, investigative qualities and not so much a likeness to my miniature herd, but I don’t know…

rootle, v.
[‘ trans. Of an animal, esp. a pig: to root or grub (something) up or out.
Also in extended use: to bring to light; to extract by searching around or rummaging.’]
Oxford English Dictionary


photo.JPGBack to livestock! Occasionally, we’ve found a cheeky brown job (who says the hybrids don’t have personalities?) slipping into the pig pen close behind us to chance her wing at foraging in their wake, like gulls after a plough, gleaning all the shiny insects that the larger animals ignore in the pursuit of roots and other delicacies. Although chickens can move fast, I’ve been surprised at the speed of pigs, too, and, at this age, as they’re still fairly slim and small, they’re remarkably quick on their trotters. So when James and I were heading out of the garden and down to the river to take the dogs swimming on Sunday and one of our pretty Ixworth girls flew over the top wire and landed in the porcine wilderness that lies the other side, we stopped in our tracks and dashed into the run to flush it out. The Oxford Sandy & Blacks were somewhat excited to find an invader in their midst and so while attempting to keep them at bay, we acted like a pincer movement to try and usher her out of the gate and back to the safety of the flock. She’s a flighty little number and it took a good few minutes of us to-ing and fro-ing before she sped out, with that hilarious poultry gait. Despite not having spent very long with the boys, she was decidedly shaken. James had his first cuddle with her since she was a chick, due to the fact that the poor bird was exhausted by her ordeal. She sat in his arms for a good ten minutes while her fellow feathered friends fussed around her. We finally headed down to the river with the dogs.

Later that day, we discovered that the hose had gone missing from the tap by the pigs’ drinker and found it the other side of their run! They’d plucked it from through the squares of stock fence and dragged it over a distance of around 60 feet to presumably stash it away. Our Gloucestershire Old Spots did this, too, and I find it very endearing. It’s as if they’re gathering treasure or perhaps putting together a collection of useful belongings, ‘just in case’. Practical and industrious – just two of the fine qualities that porcine characters possess. They’ve so many that I now can’t imagine not having pigs on the plot.


Petting pigs

There are few creatures happier than a pig with an apple in its mouth
There are few creatures happier than a pig with an apple in its mouth

As I wrote the week before last, I’ve changed tack when it comes to being affectionate towards the pigs we raise for meat. First time round, James and I maintained a level of detachment, but I’ve been patting, stroking and generally fussing our current trio of Oxford Sandy & Blacks due to the belief that it’s life-enhancing for both them and me. Sunday afternoon was a golden opportunity for just that, so I headed down to the run in my oldest gardening clothes to hang out with the porkers. To gain access to their quarters without being mugged and possibly knocked to the ground – even James came a cropper the other day – we now try a three-apple decoy. We’ve tonnes of windfalls that various friends and family members have donated to the porcine cause and the pigs love them, of course. Tossing said fruit into the run ahead of us can buy valuable minutes, especially if it’s around 8pm and they’re feeling peckish. It allows us the chance to reach the feed bin before they tackle us and attempt to nibble our ankles, toes or heels (Wellington boots are essential kit these days). Early afternoon, between their breakfast and tea, they’re less intent on chewing anything that moves (wonder if they’re still teething as well as having huge appetites?), but you still have to be a little cautious. After consuming their snack, they each went their separate ways and I sat still on a chopped up tree stump hoping they’d almost forget that I was there and would behave just as they do on their own. But they had other ideas. The smallest and, arguably cutest, suddenly launched at my makeshift seat and semi-mounted it.

OnthelogI jumped off with surprise but gave him a stroke around the backs of the ears (particularly fine and soft hair there), which he enjoyed so much he promptly fell asleep and toppled off the log. This is the same little guy who ended up falling asleep against my leg last week when I stroked him in the same place.

Making a fussHas anyone else experienced this phenomenon? He looked completely blissed out and, for the first time, I felt mildly uncomfortable about the fact that we’d be turning him and his herd into roasting joints, chops, bacon and sausages in the new year. When we didn’t pat and stroke the Gloucestershire Old Spots – helped by the fact that, from the start, they had a natural aversion to human contact – there was still an element of mistrust on their part, which in turn helped us remain detached from them and, ultimately, do the deed. I’m not saying it was easy, but we made it as painless as possible for them and us. I figure with the Oxford Sandy & Blacks that, due to the fact that they’re also boys, they’ll become quite bullish when their hormones begin to kick in and that it won’t be quite so tempting to make a cheeky fuss of them. Can anyone either confirm whether this is the case or not, their experience?
At least with henkeeping, there’s no difficult end in sight and you can fuss chickens without your conscience muddying the waters. Big Jeff, as we call our tall but gangly lavender Araucana cockerel, is getting on famously with his ladies in the layers’ run down the end of the garden and loves to be stroked and hand-fed a portion of corn. Unfortunately, his black female counterparts never did start laying in the summer and will likely observe the pure breed tradition of shutting up shop all autumn and most of winter, and so we’ll have kept them for around eight months before they start in mid-February (hopefully), the traditional time for such hens to resume duties. James and I keep wondering if we’ll come across a pile of secret eggs somewhere and the mystery will be solved. Do Araucanas have a reputation as late developers in the laying stakes, I wonder? Happy henkeeping.

Two of the ladies in black who aren’t earning their keep!

Pigs, camera, action!

IMG_3991-0At various times over the past few weeks I’ve patiently snapped away and have consistently managed to photograph only two out of three porkers (albeit with rather soft edges) and the other is always a complete blur. Of course, this means I am even more in awe of CL professionals, including Cristian Barnett (he took one of my favourite pictures of all time by lying in a pool of muddy water, below), Rachel Warne, Andrew Montgomery and Brent Darby, who deliver stunning shots of livestock on the challenging farm and smallholding shoots we send them on.

Photo: Cristian Barnett

Video is a handy way of side-stepping the issue – I took a short film this morning of the hungry trio before breakfast. The range of sounds they make is staggering, though not surprisingly they’re at their loudest when feeling particularly peckish.

Talking of noises, the Ixworth cockerels are producing their pleasing, resounding calls from around 5am. Since relocating them at the end of the garden, which borders a swathe of willow land, we can enjoy the distant call without the anxiety that it’s upsetting our neighbours. All the same, we don’t let them out till around 6.30am (hence no action, just sound, in this video) – their voices carry rather well.

They are now a flock of only three because James decided the largest was ready for dispatch last weekend. We’ve raised hubbards and cobbs before but not a lovely rare breed like these chaps – James said it was the best chicken he’s ever tasted and had a really full, traditional flavour. So we may well be touch again with South Yeo Farm East in Devon to order some more more fertile eggs for hatching out. Keen to buy a new incubator, though, as ours proved a little unreliable humidity-wise in the spring – an Araucana breeder suggested we order one by Brinsea, does anyone else have a recommendation, please?

Good weekends all!