There are five major breeds of pig used on commercial pig units around the world, with commercial cross breeds /hybrids of these five being the main types of pig that you'll find, either indoors or in the field. They are the Large White, Landrace, Hampshire, Duroc and Pietrain.
But what of the many other breeds around the world? Do they have a place in the modern pig industry? Are they "rare for a reason", as the more cynical among the farming community would have it? Let's look at a few of them and see why things are as they are.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century in Europe the pig was a widespread back-yard necessity - it ate all the kitchen, garden, market and crop waste and turned it into a good quality protein and energy source for the rapidly industrializing populations. Pig units started to spring up near growing conurbations, and there was a need to improve the reproductive side of things. Historically, pig breeds had been locaiised/ regional phenomena, and not very prolific. Enter highly prolific breeds from China (for example to Meishan pig), which were crossed onto the locals in order to produce more pigs per sow every year.
The one breed to have missed out on this 'improvement', and therefore regarded as the most 'primitive' is the Tamworth. A brown/orange coloured pig with a very long noseand pricked ears, she is also known as the 'Old English Forest Pig' - and is one of the oldest breeds in the UK. Tamworths are milky, docile, hardy sows, and their meat has a distinctive strong flavour. Only 17 boars survived in the mid '70's following a long decline in numbers. In recent years the breed has been strengthened in numbers and quality by Australian imports.
The Berkshire pig: the Japanese love them, slaughterhouses don't (extremely fat with coarse black hair)! They are black, with distinctive pink feet and a pink blaze on their noses. First recorded as early as the 17th Century, the breed almost died out after World War 2: a specialist product, known in the USA as 'Black Gold'. Some supermarkets sell the Berkshire as a high value speciality line.
The 'Orchard Pig' or Gloucester Old Spot has been around for two or three centuries. Tough, hardy and quiet, with lopped ears that act as 'blinkers', this large pig is pink with a few black spots. In the UK it is the most numerous of the 'rare breeds'. Good carcass quality though too fat for modern processors. She is suited to outdoor production and specialised marketing. Recent research has looked at crossing the Gloucester onto commercial hybrid sows with the aim of producing quick growing, large litters which have the benefits of the sire's distinctive 'old fashioned' flavour: early results are encouraging, with excellent feedback from butchers and producers alike.
The Welsh is 'pear shaped' when viewed from the side or top, having deep hams, a long back and widely spaced legs. She is pink, and not unlike a Landrace to look at. An excellent bacon pig - the third most important sire line in the UK, originally from the Shropshire and Manchester breeds. Maybe less 'rare', and of increasing commercial interest, she's included here to show you where these breeds came from - yes, there was a 'Manchester Pig'!
Other 'rare breeds' include the Middle White, the British Lop, the Large Black and the British Saddleback (itself a mix of the Essex and Wessex Saddleback breeds). Each of these breeds has its champions, and (usually) very localised markets for their distinctive flavours.
These breeds are rare because there's no call for their more expensive (fatty, often more strongly flavoured, less tender) produce (in comparison to meat from commercial types: leaner, more tender, but sometimes bland tasting). They tend to be fat and grow slowly (thus costing more to get to slaughter weight). But they need preserving (having found loyal local markets to live amongst) to keep their hardiness and flavour traits available to breeders, either as terminal sires of as components in hybrid breeding programmes.
Andrew is a qualified teacher of English as a foreign language (TEFL), a farmer with twenty years agricultural experience, and worked for fifteen years in the global automotive industry.