Small pigs, big ideas

news: Small pigs, big ideas

AT THE END of September, Martyn and I collected our new piglets from a neighbour. Last year it seemed quite funny to cart two pigs around in the back of a car, this year it seemed no less normal than nipping down to Tesco’s for the groceries. I suppose we (us and the pigs) were in a Renault 4 which has the effect of making any situation comical. It is also worth noting that the farmer’s 10-year-old son was giggling uncontrollably and talking about taking a photo, but to us it was all standard practice.

This year, we have bought younger pigs, only two months old, in the belief that they would be smaller and therefore easier to handle – true, to a point. Our neighbour, brought up in the Monchique tradition, handled the pigs expertly although a little roughly for our sensitive city sensibilities. The piglets were tempted out of the house with some fresh vine leaves and very quickly there were 12 to choose from. Antonio looked on good-naturedly, waiting for me to inspect the animals, expecting me to look for the strongest healthiest piglets. I had done my homework and knew a good ‘fattening sow’ should look and act lively. Its back should be long and have a glossy sheen. It should not be dumpy, should be well rounded in front of the back legs and stand square on all four legs.

As the pigs emerged for inspection Martyn instantly chose our first one guided by its pretty face, completely black with a white area around the snout. I chose the second one, a patchy black and pink pig that could have been lifted from a children’s ‘Farmyard Animals’ book. A rather dazed Antonio then carried the animals by their ears to our car and the night air was filled with the usual blood curdling screams that only pigs can make. On our return, we rejected the ear method, preferring to carry the pigs down to their terrace under our arms, more in keeping with the Enid Blyton approach to farming. Although a little heavy this was far less traumatic and the screaming less piercing.

We have quickly come to realise that our rash decision, choosing pretty pigs, will not help matters when the killing day comes, so we have chosen names that are designed to keep us focused on the reason we have them. ‘Eggs’ and ‘Bacon’ are settling in quite well and doing all the naughty things that piglets do. Playing with the hosepipe is a great hoot at the moment, as is charging round and round in circles chasing one another. On the terrace where we have housed the pigs, we planted potatoes back in June. These were lovingly cared for throughout the summer, to provide ready meals for the porkers to dig up now. This has been tremendously successful, quite often during the day, the girls can be seen unearthing spuds and munching away contentedly.

Until this year I had always prided myself on my calm, measured, adult approach to wasps, hornets and the like. As others around me flap, swat, scream and run, I have always managed to be that irritating person who remains still and unflappable. “Just keep still and they won’t bother you,” I’d bleat on smugly “they won’t sting you if you don’t upset them.”

Until last year I had only been stung once, rather memorably at the age of eight whilst on holiday at The Sea View Caravan Park in Clacton. I still carry the shame of being forced to ‘moon’ by the camp swimming pool as my father removed the sting from my bottom in full view of the other campers. As if that wasn’t enough for an eight-year-old to endure, my mother then insisted I spend the night in the clubhouse sat on an inflatable rubber ring, just to ensure anyone who missed the earlier performance was in no doubt as to the identity of the boy who had been stung on the bum. That aside (or perhaps because of it), I overcame the fear of stinging insects and learned that calmness was the best response. Until now that is.

You may remember that earlier this year, whilst encouraging the geese to go into their new house, I was set upon by a swarm of hornets resulting in two hours at casualty and an anti-histamine injection. Since then, I seem to have become fair game to any stinging insect that flies within a mile radius of our farm. The fires this year have led to a depletion in vegetation, so now wasps and hornets have resorted to building their nests in the soil, typically soil that I am about to dig or weed or dare to breathe near. A fortnight ago, whilst pulling an apology for a carrot, I disturbed one of these nests and was pursued by an enraged swarm for at least thirty metres, all trying to sting my ears. Since then, whenever I venture near the carrot bed an army of enraged hornets come flying from underground and trail me in whichever direction I travel. The chase can last for two or three minutes and only seems to end when a direct hit is scored, usually on my ears. In their quest to get me, they will fly past other, often stationary people with the result that I have now become that manic flapping fool, dancing off like a human windmill in any direction at the first buzz of an approaching wasp. As I apply the ‘bite and sting cream’ for the umpteenth time, Martyn, so far untouched by the yellow peril, oozes pseudo sympathy, barely bothering to hide the suppressed laughter bubbling under the surface. I only need say “you think it’s funny,” to release a hysterical bout of uncontrolled hilarity.

The odd downpours of the past couple of weeks are finally beginning to have the desired effect, transforming the scorched landscape. At the moment the first few blades of grass are standing proud against the blackened soil, soon to form a dense lime green carpet. The turkeys, hatched in May, seem rather surprised to learn that vegetation grows from the soil. They are already putting this new knowledge to practical use, making the most of this new bounty. A few more weeks and there will be enough grass to meet the needs of the chickens too and we shall finally be able to cut back on the grain we are buying in.

This week I have dug our sweet potatoes, which have been in the ground since April. The harvest is particularly rewarding this year, as the slips (cuttings) were taken from the potatoes we grew last year, meaning the whole process was achieved independently with no financial outlay. The cooler weather is also benefiting the cabbages and lettuces we are growing, which are now beginning to race away.

This year I intend to start some new cabbages every month or so. It is a particularly useful crop as all the animals eat them, as well as us, so there is no waste.

All this success has got me thinking about next year and I now have some big ideas. We have recently done a partial land swap with a neighbour and now have a couple of big cleared terraces at the side of the house. I intend to use this land to grow a huge crop of broad beans, which can be harvested in April, dried then stored for the pigs. The same land will then be split between sweet potatoes, again for us and the pigs, and maize, which we can dry for the hens. These crops (hornets permitting) will mean we can substantially reduce the amount we spend on animal food and move us that little bit closer towards the ideal of self-sufficiency.

We know we will never be entirely self-sufficient (not having the ability to manufacture white chocolate Magnums) but it is rewarding to move along the continuum to get that little bit closer.