They almost died out in the 1970s
Kunekune as a breed almost died out in the 1970s, with numbers dropping to as low as 50 pigs. It led to a purebred group of nine pigs – six sows and three boars – being brought together in 1978 in an organised breeding programme, led by Michael Willis of the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve and John Simister of the Staglands Wildlife Reserve.
In the late 1980s, the NZ Kunekune Association was formed to help people interested in breeding and owning kunekune. The first kunekune pigs were probably brought to NZ by traders in the 1800s, and they were quickly taken up by local Maori tribes, but where they originated was – and to a certain extent still is – a bit of a mystery. DNA testing by Auckland University looked at the potential sources of genetic variation in Pacific Island pigs and found out the kunekune wasn’t Pacific-based or European. A second DNA study by Australia researchers found their origins were Asian, although there is no pig native to Asia that fits the exact look of the kunekune. There’s no such thing as a miniature kunekune or ‘teacup’ pig in NZ, although there are smaller breeds overseas.
There are kunekune that are naturally smaller than others, and small piglets may fit into a cup when born, but they don’t stay that way.
A kunekune is a small breed of pig when you compare it other pigs. An adult large black boar can be up to 300kg, other breeds get up to 400kg, so in comparison, a kunekune – adult weights range from 60200kg – is small, but it’s not ‘mini’.
What can confuse people into thinking a kunekune is ‘mini’ is meeting six month olds like Dixie (below left) and Demelza (above) and thinking they are close to full grown, when these girls will fill out over the next 18 months or so, much more slowly than other domestic pigs which tend to reach adult size by 9-12 months.
It’s frustrating trying to educate those new to pigs who see pictures like these and think it will stay that small says long-time kunekune breeder, and owner of Dixie and Demelza, Kay Mcmahon (pictured at left).
“You’ve got to be realistic, they do grow, they’re not going to stay this size. Wouldn’t it be lovely if I could breed kunekune that small – I’d be a very rich person!”
Typically her pigs grow to about 4050cm in height – Kay uses her knee as a measure – which is relatively small in the pig world, but it’s still 80-100kg of animal. Compare that with a large dog breed like the English Mastiff where larger males can be up to 100kg, or the more common Labrador (30-35kg) to give yourself an idea of how big these ‘small’ pigs are going to grow. Most breeders of kunekune pigs are selling them as pets and would be very upset if you ate one, but there are people who keep them for eating.
However, there’s an art to growing good meat on a kunekune. Firstly it’s very
slow, taking about twice as long as larger breeds like the Large Black, Saddleback, Tamworth and Duroc. Even then you won’t be getting as much meat because kunekune are a smaller carcase size.
The other issue is how kunekune grow. Their name ‘fat, round’ is a clue to their growth strategy – turn as much food as you can into fat. Kunekune can lay down a lot more fat than traditional meat breeds, especially if they are eating foods like bread.
In a story with NZ Lifestyle Block magazine a few years ago, people had their homekill butcher skin the pig (removing some fat in the process) rather than dehairing it (which also saved on time), but told us the key to good meat on a kunekune is a strict diet: mostly pasture, a little bit of kitchen scraps (cooked) and excess fruit. Kunekune are popular pigs, but they can often be crossbred and it can be difficult for someone new to pigs to know if they’re getting the real thing.
The NZ Kunekune Association has a breed standard and breeders can register their stock. Pigs are inspected to make sure they meet the standard.
“The main things to look for are a short snout, tassels present, sound legs and feet, and good temperament.”
Breeder Kay Mcmahon says she’s never come across a bad-tempered kunekune in her 25 years of experience.
“We’ve never worried about their tusks, they’re so placid. We’ve never had one go us, or be horrible.
“I think if you had an aggressive male kunekune there’s something wrong because they are so placid, and I wouldn’t have one around if it had a go at me.”
By buying from a registered breeder, you are getting reassurance your pig is a purebred kunekune, and there’s no extra cost to you – kunekune piglets at weaning generally sell for around $80. An adult kunekune can live entirely off quality pasture. This is unusual in the pig world, as other breeds require more protein, usually fed in the form or pellets or in cooked scraps.
It’s important to keep their diet restricted because a fat kunekune with its short legs is going to be unhealthy and physically struggling. Kay says she was once called in to help out with a very fat kunekune that was unable to get up after collapsing. It had to be assisted to stand and was then put on a strict diet.
“You can just feed grass, so long as they’re not in pig or feeding piglets and you’ve got good grass. When we’ve got sows and piglets they get fed vegetable pulp from a juicing guy and we feed out excess veges like cucumbers and carrots, and apples.”
“When they start putting on weight, they’re going to go in their back – their back gives way on them.
“I’ve had vets come here and say they wished people would look after their kunekune like I do. And that’s grass only.”
Like all pigs, kunekune do require fresh, clean water at all times. Kay provides hers in steel bowls that she then sits inside a tyre so the pigs can’t tip it over or lay in it, but can still drink out of it comfortably.
In other pig breeds, the colour is a set feature: large blacks are black, saddlebacks are black with a white stripe over the ‘saddle’ area, durocs are red-brown.
But the kunekune can be a wide range of colours and patterns, from all gold to black and white spotted and everything inbetween.
There are thought to be five genes in kunekune that produce the wide variety of colours and patterns, and it’s very difficult to consistently produce them.
The most common colours, sometimes with randomly distributed spots and patches of colour, are: • black • black and white • brown • gold • tan • cream
The coat texture can range from short silky hair to long coarse curls and it may vary according to the time of year, sometimes resulting in a marked difference between summer and winter coats. One of the cute features of the kunekune is the little tassel’s or pire pire which hang down from their lower jaw. Most kunekune have them, but there are some which don’t, or which may be born with only one, or the tassel may not be well attached and can be lost to injury.
It’s best not to breed pigs without tassels as this perpetuates a lack of tassels and isn’t to the breed standard.
The other problem is if you breed a tasseled kunekune with another breed, often the piglets will have tassles even though they are not purebred.
all 140kg of him. That sounds big, but it’s about mid-size for an adult kunekune boar.
Naming him after the pig in Charlotte’s Web wasn’t quite as original as I thought – turns out, there are lots of pigs named Wilbur.
But he was unique, something I only discovered while writing this story, almost five years after his death.
Before Wilbur, I’d never met a reallife pig (pork and bacon don’t count) and I didn’t get pig-speak at all. It was only after meeting the delightful kunekunes you see in this story that I realised Wilbur was actually being a polite, gentle, sweet pig. But back then, everything he did was terrifying to me, mostly due to his large tusks and my vet scaring the bejeesus out of me with stories of how pigs can use their tusks to injure you.
Wilbur spent most his time sleeping, following the goats, napping, and then curling up in the biggest goat house for his overnight slumber.
I’d had Wilbur for about a year when I noticed one side of his face was swollen and suspected an abscess. A vet visit concluded the same thing and it was decided we would operate. That’s as bad as it sounds, as even with two vets and a special run to hold him, I was required to assist. It’s also very difficult to anaesthetise a pig as drugs can’t be put into a vein – they have to go through a thick layer of fat – which makes it a slower, more difficult, expensive process.
Unfortunately, Wilbur’s abscess and the resulting fistula (a hole that eventually formed right through his mouth and out his cheek) was being caused by a deformity in his jaw. One day, a tusk just fell out onto the ground.
It’s something vets nationwide are occasionally seeing in kunekune, so when Wilbur had to be put down because he could no longer eat properly, my vet arranged for his head to be sent to Massey University to become part of a study that produced this paper: Facial swelling and discharging lesions associated with abnormalities of the mandible in kunekune pigs
I found the paper while writing this story and realised Wilbur got a special mention.
“In Case 2… the cavity in the mandible was lined with mucosa that had healed to the skin to produce a fistula.”
And that’s how my pig became famous, in a veterinary science kind of way, and hopefully his life will have ongoing meaning for all kunekune pigs.