They al­most died out in the 1970s

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Fea­ture - Source:

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.

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