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Wild boar and domestication (part three)
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By the early eighteenth century there was plenty of variation in British pigs. Some were communal scavengers; some were cottage pigs; some lived well on the by-products of dairy and arable farming. Gradually regional types developed, differing in the carriage of their ears, the length of their bodies and legs, and their skin and coat colours. There was a broad tendency for white pigs to be favoured in the north (the famous Yorkshire pigs, for example), black or black-and-white pigs in the south, and spotted and blotched multi-coloured pigs of red, black and sand in between.

Although pigs had played a role in medieval agriculture, they declined sharply with the loss of woodland habitat in which to rootle and with the great increase in the planting of arable crops - no farmer wanted a pig rootling in his barley fields, and pigs suddenly found themselves being confined and controlled. They became mainly cottage livestock, kept in a sty and fed on whatever waste the cottager could find, and becoming a vital resource for the cottage larder in winter. Cottagers migrating to towns in search of work sometimes took their pigs with them to scavenge in the streets during the day, and in the eighteenth century pig-racing in the streets was a popular spectator sport.

Wild boar and domestication (part three)

The long-legged 'Old Irish Greyhound* pig, illustrated in about 1850 - tall, bony, heavy-eared, coarse-haired and said at the time to be an intermediate form between the Wild Boar and the domesticated pig. Similar pigs could still be found in Galway in those days and were described as a 'white* breed by some of the old writers. Note the tusks, and the wattles dangling under the jaw.

One farmer used to drive into town with four large hogs drawing his carriage. In Scotland there were isolated reports of cows and sows being yoked together with horses for ploughing. Elsewhere pigs were used to hunt for truffles, and even in one or two cases to act as a gamekeeper's 'gun-pig' to point to and retrieve game.

Some farmers did continue to keep pig herds in areas where there were surpluses from their own cereal and bean crops, or where a local dairy or brewery produced useful by-products for feeding to pigs, but in 1776 the agriculturalist John Mills wrote: 'Of all the quadrupeds that we know, at least certainly of all those that come under the husbandman's care, the Hog appears to be the foulest, the most brutish, and the most apt to commit waste wherever it goes. The defects of its figure seem to influence its dispositions: all its ways are gross, all its inclinations are filthy, and all its sensations concentrate in a furious lust, and so eager a gluttony, that it devours indiscriminately whatever comes its way.' However, attitudes to the pig were about to change.

Wild boar and domestication (part three)

Imported Cantonese sow. The original Chinese pigs were mainly imported between 1770 and 1780 from Canton; they seem to have been mostly white, but occasionally black or pied. Most of the importations were of boars (rather than sows), used to improve the old Berkshire pig.

Quite early in the eighteenth century the first known imports of Asian pigs arrived in small numbers, and from the 1770s in greater numbers. These mainly Cantonese and Siamese pigs fattened much more quickly (with a thick layer of blubber) and could be slaughtered at nine months old or less; their meat was more delicate, and they were very docile.

Wild boar and domestication (part three)

A highly influential Siamese sow, imported via Singapore by Messrs Dugdale of Manchester, painted as a three- year-old by William Shiels and reproduced by Professor Low in 1842. She has a typically straight oriental tail. Her litter (by a half- bred Chinese boar) reveals a mixture of colours and coat patterns.

They had characteristically pendulous bellies almost touching the ground, dipped backs, short little legs, short little upright ears, very little hair, fine bones, and often dished or squashed faces. Some slate-coloured copper-skinned Neapolitan pigs also arrived, larger and more elegant than the Asian pigs but with Asian blood, a good flavour to the meat and better mothering abilities.

Pig-breeding suddenly became fashionable, and countless new breeds were created, especially by the upper classes and particularly for the show-ring.

Wild boar and domestication (part three)

The famous Neapolitan breed was first imported by Lord Western (1767-1844) of Rivenhall, Essex, from his Italian travels and described by him as 'a breed of very peculiar and valuable qualities, the flavour of the meat being excellent, and the disposition to fatten on the smallest quantity of food unrivalled*. It had no bristles, but sparse silky hair and fine skin. Similar pigs were imported from Malta. This boar and sow were the property of the Rt Hon. Earl Spencer and had been imported from Naples by the Hon. Captain Spencer.

Big English sows were bred to the 'highly refined' Chinese boars and thereafter selective breeding for form and quality gradually established the different British breeds. By the early nineteenth century, pigs of every conceivable colour, coat pattern and type could be found in most parts of England. The passion for Chinese pigs lasted for nearly a century, and their impact on British pigs was substantial and radical. No more was heard of them, however, after about 1860, until in the 1980s Britain's big pig-breeding companies once again began to import Chinese pigs to improve the fecundity of the national herd.

Wild boar and domestication (part three)

Good old-fashioned rustic pig of no particular breed.

To write of the 'British' pig is perhaps misleading. Wales had plenty of pigs, but in Scotland pig meat was never very popular and pig-breeding was much less important than elsewhere in the British Isles: there seem to have been no true Scottish breeds. In Ireland pigs were plentiful, and some very good pigs were produced over the centuries. But the breeds that became famous all over the world, exported in huge numbers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in particular, were largely English breeds. Here is their story.

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