When a pair of city dwellers decided on a whim to move to Aveyron, a remote part of southern France, it wasn’t to live off the land – they had never even had a pet. But they acquired a dog and four black hens, and then it struck them that a couple of pigs
We don’t want to make them cute or lovable, we just want to tell them apart, so we call them ‘Big Pig’ and ‘Little Pig’
Here they come. The van is bouncing down the track; the trailer bouncing behind. I watch Benoît manoeuvre deftly across the ruts and tufts to bring the back of the vehicle close. It’s an open trailer and I can see both of the weaners, side by side, their noses raised. They are stocky, about the size of a smallish Labrador, with wide backs and small, bright eyes; their ears flap forward and the undersides area soft, leathery greyish brown.
They look around, tussle and nudge, look again, curious and eager; they keep up a quiet chorus of grunts and chatters, but don’t seem particularly put out by their journey.
Benoît leans over the side of the trailer and grabs the first weaner by the hind legs, then swings it above the bars, tucks it under his arm and carries it through the orchard door, stepping over the string of the electric fence and placing it inside the enclosure. It squeals energetically, as you would expect a pig to, and squeals more mournfully when it’s left momentarily alone while the whole operation is repeated with the second weaner. But as soon as they’re together, they become quieter, just chattering together in low grunts. They stand still on a little patch of soil and ivy between slender tree trunks, puzzled and wary, looking about them. They don’t like to move, that’s clear. They don’t trust this place, this ground.
Benoît, too, looks about. He tests the solidity of the electric fence, walks the length of it, pushing at posts and wires. He suggests that we put in some additional posts to strengthen it at the corners.
They’ll push, he explains, and test all the boundaries. He is methodical, businesslike. There’s no chit-chat or pig pleasantry: he checks the pigs will be secure, fed, warm – that’s all.
Then he leaves. The weaners listen hard to the sound of the van and trailer driving away. Still they move only their heads; their trotters are planted. They don’t risk even a step.
We take a close look at what we’ve got. These are beautiful animals. Each has a thick dark hide like an elephant’s, with long black hairs that lie flat on its rump and shoulders, but come together in a kind of bristly mane along the length of its back. They have a fluffy fringe on their brows, which sweeps rakishly between the ears. They have squat, soft sn outs, wrinkled too, leather y to the touch; knobbly knees; and wonderfully smooth, tensile tails, strong and active, always on the move – sometimes held straight like a rat, sometimes curled.
We put down some grain for them, directly onto the ground. It’s a couple of yards from where they’re standing, so now they have to move if they want to eat. They sniff, hesitate. They look at us, weighing us up, their faces apparently unchanging, and yet somehow full of expression. In t he slight dip of their heads and their intense black stares, in the twitch of their ears, they give away their reluctance to move, their astonishment at the way the morning is unfolding, their bewilderment. For long minutes they watch us uneasily, making no noise. But they sniff again, their noses working hard, taking in the comforting cereal smell of the dry grain. And ‘pigs + food’ is a reliable equation. In the end, they can’t resist.
One of them takes a step, and then another step, quickly now, desperate to be first. In an instant, the diffidence has vanished: all of a sudden this pig seems to have made up his mind; all of a sudden this is a competitive pig, active and hungry and focused. And before he’s even reached the food, the other responds. They’re barging and tussling. They each head for the same side and splash their noses through the grain, bringing them up white and floury like Sherbet Dip Dabs. The strangeness and menace of arrival seem forgotten in the familiar delight of eating together, shoulder to shoulder. It’s not easy to tell them apart. One weaner’s head is a little longer and narrow er than the other’ s, and their frames, too, are slightly different: one is broader, shorter, lower to the ground. As they grow, these variations in build will become more evident – in the months to come we will discover that the pigs have contra sting characters, too–but these two small black animals foraging in front of us have a long way to go, and for now you could be forgiven for thinking they are identical.
We give them names. We need to be able to identify them, one from the other, so that we can know which pig is doing what, which pig is fattening better, which pig is sick or lost. It ’s a pragmatic decision and we’ re very careful: we don’t give them pet names or indulge in anything fanciful. We don’t want to make them cute or lovable; we simply want to be able to tell them apart. We decide the minor variation in physique will be enough to define them, so we just call them ‘Big Pig’ and ‘Little Pig’.
Big Pig and Little Pig are settling in. They test the electric fence, which shocks them just enough to elicit a squeal. They are comfortable in their shelter and, with extreme care, they’ve moved the straw around to their own liking. Whenever I take a new bagful to refresh the bed they spend a great deal of time nosing it into place, working it into the corners of the shelter and creating mini windbreaks against the draughts. I realise that they’re better at such housekeeping than I am, and after a few days, instead of interfering, I get into the habit of leaving the straw in a pile just outside the shelter. When I return later, ever y scrap is gathered up and tucked away. The shapes of two small pigs are still worn into the bed, but the new straw has been piled up around the dents: day by day they create a deeper, softer nest for themselves, shaped to their forms as perfectly as any memory- foam mattress. They are
scrupulously clean, and keep their bedding clean, too: they make sure to excrete as far away as they can, designating an agreed toilet area in a corner of the enclosure, near the wall.
As well as neighbours, Big Pig and Little Pig meet our dog, Mo. Mo has been part of the preparations; he’s been here while we’ve been clearing the land and building the shelter. But now he finds two pigs. He’s disgruntled but curious; after a minute or so he gathers his courage and comes towards the wire, edging towards the pigs, staring. In turn, Big Pig and Little Pig are equally curious. They shuffle a step or two and then make their way towards him in a wide circle, closing in slowly. Finally, they sneak to the fence, together, side by side. Mo is at the fence too. Big Pig: Little Pig: Dog. They all stand regarding each other quietly but intently. Noses twitch, much sniffing goes on. And in time, somehow, something is agreed: this is all right, they concede; this is acceptable.
And this is probably the first time I really become aware of the pigs as different from each other. It’s not only their respective sizes, I realise, that define them. What really sets them apart, one from the other, is the way they react to things. It’s Little Pig, I notice, who runs further when Mo arrives; it’s Little Pig who trembles and makes more noise. He’s a scaredy-cat and perhaps also something of an exhibitionist, a drama queen. Big Pig is calmer. He has a steadier gaze; he is wary and surprised, but reasonably unf lustered. Big Pig is the brave one.
But then Little Pig gathers his courage and returns to his position at the wire, and while Big Pig moves away, Little Pig stays. It’s as though he wants to make friends with Mo. He wants to be sociable. There’ s an affability about him; he’s open to the idea of another companion, charmed by another potential playmate. It’s only the fear that Big Pig has unearthed a secret cache of tasty bugs somewhere on the other side of the shelter that finally pulls him away. So then, already, Big Pig is not just Big; Little Pig is other than Little. We’ve got an extrovert and an introvert. I’m taken with the discovery.
There’s something calming about the way they go about things, their rhythmic, unruffled search for food, their confidence in finding it; there’s a pleasure in watching these sturdy, shapely beasts ambling between the trees. They are continually busy, in a slow way, perpetually occupied, moving steadily, covering ground. I always knew that animals required space to properly thrive, and I’ve always bought free-range pork and poultry when I can. But watching the pigs shuffle and dig and grub, seeing the constant activity that occupies their day, has brought home to me how miserable it is to confine a pig, any pig, so that it has no room to move, nothing to do, nowhere to go. Pigs need land to roam, soil to turn, work to do, as much as they need the basics of food and water. I can’t imagine Big Pig and Little Pig in a cage.
Before my eyes they grow. And as I watch them, inevitably, I sometimes think about their deaths. Ed and I rarely talk about killing the pigs. I know Ed is quite happy with the arrangements; he understands that we’ll need to slaughter them. That there will be no choice.
I shy away even from the thought of it. I continue to remind myself, as I must, that these animals are here for a reason. Pigs for meat, that’s what I remind myself. Special pigs but not pet pigs. Lovable pigs that must not be loved. Or not too much. Because too much would mean I could never kill them, and what would happen then?
It’s time for Big Pig and Little Pig to go to a new home, to the bigger patch of oak woodland and scruffy meadow that will tide them through the rest of their lives. They will have shade there for the summer, a water supply, good sources of wild food; they will clear the land and rejuvenate it. Early April, we have calculated, is the perfect time to move them on and get them settled before the weather turns warm.
But it’s a distance of perhaps a mile to the new land, and we already have about 220lb of animal: boisterous, spirited, independent. This is too much pig to fit in our car, and we don’t have a trailer.
We will walk the pigs. It sounds simple: we’ll lead them from the patch of orchard, along the rutted track to the stone cross, over the lane, down a grassy path to the edge of the next hamlet – turning by the fig tree and another stone cross– over another lane and through a field to the new terrain. But it’s notoriously difficult to walk a pig. They tend to move slowly, but they can also show a surprising and sudden turn of speed if they feel they want to; their enthusiasm for nuts and berries, insects and leaves means there’s always something tempting just a sniff away; their curiosity about new things lures them off track; their tendency to take fright at sudden noise scan have them veering aside in a panic. They don’t follow a herding instinct, like cattle or sheep, and if you slip a rope around their necks, dog-lead fashion, they protest noisily and are likely to haul you away or simply refuse to move.
I have some confidence in Big Pig. He’ll be sensible, as far as a pig can be, and prudent. Little Pig I’m less sure of. He’s naturally more scatty, more susceptible to panic. The expedition might test his mettle. But his greed is surely in our favour: he’ll do anything for food.
It’s midweek, mid-morning, a time of stillness. A bright day with birds circling high, the hay growing thickly and scenting the dew, the light already hardening towards summer. The verges are speckled with camp ion, poppies, mall ow, bindweed, daisies, scabious, thyme,f ever few, saxifrage, stitchwo rt–and all the bugs, beetle sand hoppers that skitter among them. It feels like a cheerful day for moving pigs and we set off to the orchard in high spirits, each with a bucket of acorns.
We leave the buckets outside the little white door and go into the enclosure. Big Pig is truffling at the far end under the plum saplings, his nose deep in soil. Little Pig is lying on the straw in
Little Pig is a scaredy-cat and perhaps also something of an exhibitionist, a drama queen. Big Pig is calmer
the sun, lazy, but he’s the first to see us and he squirms to his feet with a grunt and rushes over for food. Big Pig raises his head, shakes the earth from his skin and trots over to join us. Ed turns off the battery that runs the electric fence. We remove the three posts nearest the door and drop the wire, pulling it out to create a wide passage. The pigs watch. We step back towards the door and encourage them through the gap. ‘Come on, then! Come on.’ They stand resolutely still, exactly at the line where the fence was, exactly where they usually do. We fetch the buckets and rattle the acorns. They know the sound; they want the treat. But they daren’t cross the line they’ve learnt. They’re frightened of a shock, of pain.
I step back and for th to prove that things have changed. The pigs eye me suspiciously. Ed r at t le s t he acor ns a nd moves away wit h t he bucket towards the door. ‘Come on. Last chance!’ They ’re de sperate now. They want the acorns more than anything. But they can’t bring themselves to risk it. They discovered the sting of the fence as tiny weaners, and ever since they’ve respected its authority. Quite sensibly, they don’t want to get hurt. Even for a big bucket of acorns.
So it’s an impasse, a stalemate. We can’t drag or push them out; they’re simply too heavy and determined. They’ll have to do this for themselves. We put both buckets on the g round a few feet from the door. I kneel by one and rummage inside it, presumably throwing up a delightful aroma of oak mast. We take a handful or two of acorns and scatter them in a trail from the enclosure. The pigs can now see the potential feast, as well as hear and smell it. We sit with our backs to the wall, the stone crumbling over our overalls, and we wait. Finally, warily, Big Pig makes the move. Little Pig may be greedy, but Big Pig is brave. More thoughtful, too, if that’s possible.
He fixes his attention on the buckets, steadies himself, and takes a single, slow step over the imaginary line. He seems still to expect to be zapped; when nothing happens, he collects himself and gingerly takes another step. ‘Well done. Good pig.’ He’s ex t remely caut ious, but he’s approaching t he acor ns. Little Pig, apparently terrified and furious in equal measure, stands stiffly behind the non-fence and glares.
Big Pig is growing in confidence. He’s worked his way along the trail of acorns and it’s obvious that he’s enjoying himself. His tail swishes happily from side to side, his snout is lively, twitching; he’s trotting towards the buckets. We pick them up and step away and, just as planned, he follows. But Little Pig is still hesitating. He wants to come, he’s desperate to come, but he can’t yet bring himself to take t he plu nge. We wheed le a nd encourage, Big Pig is f launting his feasting and his freedom, and in the end, inevitably, Little Pig comes, too. In a bustle of unease, he crosses the line, still afraid of a shock but much more afraid, finally, of losing out or being left behind.
So: we have two pigs, at last. We can begin. At a merry amble and with the constant brisk jiggle of acorns, we set off together through the little door, into a new world. I’m at the front of the procession with a bucket in each hand, going on slowly. I have one pig to each side of me, slightly behind me, ambling. Ed is a pace or two further back, wielding the drover’s staff. We don’t talk much – we’re concentrating on the pigs – but still it feels special, this moment together, intimate, slightly festive. It’s perhaps both the st rangest thing we’ve done since we’ve been married, and the most beautiful.
From time to time, one or other of the pigs will pause to snuffle at something. Little Pig: nose in the hedge. Big Pig: deep in
the debris at the foot of an oak. There are acorns, of course, buried and delicious. There are new leaves, insects, general bits of tasty this and that. But on the whole they’re as interested in the journey as they are in what they can scavenge, and one rattle of the bucket has their attention. They look up, they remember: ah, yes, that’s right, we’re on the move.
They sense more discoveries, or hope for them. And they’re off again, the pace quickening.
We manage the road. The pigs are unimpressed by the discovery of tar mac. But they love the narrow, grassy path that comes next. It’s damp and shady, soaked with smells, littered with the fruit and nuts of past summers. Big Pig trots past me with confidence on the trail of some particular scent. Little Pig buries his head in at angle of undergrowth. We come toast and still. The rattle of the acorn bucket has no effect. There are better things here, just now, than last year’ s dried-out acorns. And we’ve been walking for 15 minutes or more: the pigs seem to want a rest.
I expected the pig walk to be anxious and stressful, a chore, and instead it’s turned out to be a thing of great pleasure and romance. I’d like the experience to last. I’d like to remain here on this path with the pigs and Ed, cradled in green shadows, admitted to this non-place, seduced by this non-time. But we have to get to the new enclosure. We have to get the pigs settled and secure.
In the time it’s taken to make our way with a rattle and a snuffle from one enclosure to another, my relationship with the pigs has changed. I knew they had different characters: in the orchard pen, I could see that they had grown to be unique animals. It was a curiosity. It was setting out on to the tracks and lanes that tested the pigs, gave them the opportunity to be themselves, provoked them, teased them, and confirmed them completely, absolutely, as two distinct animals. Yes, Big Pig is the level-headed one, but he’s bold, too, and loyal. Little Pig’s curiosity makes him f lighty; his exuberance and joy in life mean he’s quicker to act and react, more easily distracted. He seems to care about us less. And now this realisation involves me, too, because as I’ve come to know both of the pigs, I’ve come to treat them differently. I trust Big Pig; I like him. I appreciate his solidity. I find I think of him as wise. Whereas my relationship with Little Pig is more fidgety, slightly wary: I’m fond of his openness but suspicious of his antics. I think of him as selfish, perhaps even spiteful. I keep a closer eye on him, allow him fewer freedoms.
I’ve formed a bond; well, two bonds. And isn’t this like an executioner falling for someone on death row? These are pigs for meat: Big Pig and Little Pig, not pets, not companions. We haven’t even hinted at any change of plan – neither Ed nor I have so much as raised a doubt. We’re thoroughly enjoying the pigs, but when the time comes, as it must, we’ll kill them, ourselves, at home. That’s the intention, still, unaltered. Extracted from Big Pig, Little Pig by Jacqueline Yallop, published by Fig Tree at £14.99. © Jacqueline Yallop, 2017. To order the book for £12.99 plus p&p, call 0844-871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Top Jacqueline Yallop beside the pig shelter she built herself. Above Big Pig (right) and Little Pig
The pigs at home in their second enclosure
Little Pig at nine months old