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New pigs (part four)
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In 2006 a pig rare breeds centre (Pig Paradise Farm) in Wiltshire imported more than a dozen unrelated individuals of an old Hungarian curly-coated lard breed, the splendidly woolly though rather primitive Mangalitza. The Lincolnshire Curly Coat, which became extinct in Britain in the early 1970s, had been exported to Hungary more than a century earlier and did well in local harsh winters; it was to some extent crossed with the Mangalitza and the offspring were known as the Lincolitsa in the 1920s. The Mangalitza is nearly extinct in its homeland but the Wiltshire farm eventually found some breeding stock in three different colour lines — blonde, red and 'swallow-bellied' (with a pale underside) — and has started its own British breeding programme for these fleecy pigs.

One of the newest pigs in Britain is the oldest: the Wild Boar, long since extinct in the wild but now re-imported from continental Europe for its low-cholesterol meat. It is being farmed commercially in several places. Farmers require a special licence and substantial fencing (some animals have already escaped into the countryside and caused a few problems), but Wild Boar are perfectly happy in woodland, whether confined or not, and they soon adapt to become as manageable as any other British pigs.

New pigs (part four)

Man riding a hog, illustrated by engraver Thomas Bewick (I753-I828) in his History of British Birds.



The genetic diversity of other wild pig species is being investigated at the Roslin Institute in Scotland. Sus scrofa, the Wild Boar, is only one of several related pig species. Others include Asian species such as Sus barbatus (bearded pig) and S. verrucosus (Javanese warty pig), which might have genes that would be useful for commercial pig breeders. Stretching the relationship a little, the Institute is also looking at Africa's warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) and bush pigs (Potamochoerus spp.) and even the extraordinary-looking tusky Indonesian babirusa (Babyrousa babyrussa), to see whether they too might contribute to the improvement of the domestic pig. It is some nineteen million years since these species diverged from the ancestor they shared in common with Sus scroja, the species that is believed to be the source of all today's domesticated pigs worldwide over the past nine thousand years. But recently it has been shown that the Asian and European races of Wild Boar separated into different populations half a million years ago — hence the noticeable differences even now between Asian and European domestic pigs.


New pigs (part four)

Gloucester Old Spots piglets at a farm park, well used to children.



Studies are in hand to see which of today's European breeds originally derived some of their genes from Asia as well as Europe. Even that very British breed, the Large White or Yorkshire, seems to have genetic material that could only have been inherited long ago from Asian sows.

It is fitting that Asian and European pig breeders are deliberately combining their breeds in the twenty-first century, especially at a time when European and American commercial breeds are beginning to dominate China's production systems so that the diversity of China's own breeds is under threat. Genetic diversity is an insurance against future needs and it remains important to conserve the rare breeds that we do have. They became rare because markets and farming systems changed, but there might be unimagined future changes in which their breed qualities will once again be needed.





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