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Suzi and Stu­art We­stron of Choller Farm Pigs had to choose be­tween three breeds and the Large Black won hands down, re­ports Debbie Kings­ley

Country Smallholding - - Inside This Month -

Large Black pigs, by Debbie Kings­ley

I’m a lady who likes the finer things in life. Ask Stu,” con­fesses Suzi We­stron of Choller Farm Pigs. The Arun­del, West Sus­sex res­i­dent is dis­cussing how she first be­came a pig owner and how Stu­art, her hus­band of more than 20 years, can fully re­late to the fact that for her shop­ping in Wait­rose wins ev­ery time over the dis­count stores.

Pigs came into the We­strons’ lives many years ago fol­low­ing a fam­ily day trip — the cou­ple has two chil­dren, Am­ber and Ben­jamin — to the Royal Show.

“It all started be­cause I thought feed­ing up a pig in a sta­ble would be cheaper than buy­ing pork from a butcher. And I de­cided that I’d only buy a Bri­tish breed and I’d have to go for a pedi­gree. Of course, you must buy pedi­gree as it helps both the farm­ers and the breed. So a lit­tle Berk­shire it was.”

As the We­strons pro­gressed into breed­ing and show­ing Berk­shires, Stu­art said while gaz­ing at a ring of pigs at a show, “those Large Blacks are so nice”. Suzi con­se­quently found a re­li­able source and bought two pedi­gree gilts for her hus­band.

“He fell in love with them and they were fol­lowed by a Mid­dle White as Am­ber had taken a shine to them. We bred all three breeds, win­ning top prizes, hav­ing fun and mak­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for our­selves in the pig world,” Suzi re­veals.

Suzi can see plenty of pos­i­tives when it comes to the big-eared Large Blacks — not least their charm­ing looks, plus their docile na­tures if treated kindly from birth.

“As their ears fall over their eyes it’s all about trust­ing your voice so talk­ing to them is a must,” says Suzi, who jug­gles farm work with a part-time job as a

health­care as­sis­tant, work­ing in a hos­pi­tal and in the com­mu­nity. “We can turn them out with the cows. How­ever, they are not to be messed with — they do have a tem­per and are quick on their feet if they de­cide they’re not in the mood to be­have. I learned this the hard way. I picked up a piglet to look at it and was chased. The sow was fast and didn’t stop un­til I put that piglet down. They are milky mum­mies, so the piglets are chunky within days of be­ing born. The piglets are also born very vo­cal, so the sow knows where they are. As she has long ears she doesn’t see so well, so, to en­sure that they are not trod­den on, they squeal at the slight­est thing and mum turns into a bal­let dancer. It’s all very clever.”

Even­tu­ally, af­ter keep­ing their trio of breeds and the huge work­load that came with that and with the We­strons find­ing that there was lit­tle money in pigs for hobby breed­ers, they faced a tough de­ci­sion. While they couldn’t con­tem­plate life with no pigs at all, they would have to cut down to one breed — but which one would they choose to take for­ward?

“The Large Blacks won for a few rea­sons,” re­veals Suzi. “The Berk­shire seems to be a pig that a lot of first-time pig keep­ers like the look of and we felt that there are enough good breed­ers of them spread around the coun­try. Also, the meat was great, but harder to grow and keep lean and, as I al­ways like to see them happy, I tend to over-feed them. For the show ring, a pig is much rounder than a porker for the freezer, but housewives don’t like to see too much fat.

“The Mid­dle Whites were al­ways Am­ber’s choice, but at 19 she’s about to join the Army and so won’t be around to look af­ter them. They only look great in the ring squeaky clean and it’s hard keep­ing them spot­less when they’re liv­ing out­doors.” Tak­ing all this into ac­count, and with the Large Blacks less of a prob­lem when it comes to es­cape artistry, dig­ging, fight­ing, wash­ing and mix­ing with oth­ers, they ended up top­ping the We­strons’ list.

“They are a long pig, so the bacon is a bet­ter size but, im­por­tantly for the Large Black, not many peo­ple in the south are breed­ing them, so we felt we needed to sup­port them,” says Suzi. From a prac­ti­cal point of view, there was an­other fac­tor to take into con­sid­er­a­tion. “Im­por­tantly, Stu­art was the one feed­ing them ev­ery day, and the Large Blacks were his favourites,” laughs Suzi. “He said, ‘they cause less drama and they’re eas­ier’.” De­ci­sion made.

To­day, hav­ing slimmed down their pig op­er­a­tion, which they con­tinue to op­er­ate along­side milk­ing around 120 Friesian cross Jersey cows on their small fam­ily dairy farm, the We­strons own six breed­ing sows — all of them boast­ing dif­fer­ent blood lines — as well as two un­re­lated boars.

“The boars are hard to find and I had to travel far to get dif­fer­ent boar lines,” con­tin­ues Suzi.

The We­strons av­er­age 10 piglets per lit­ter and they far­row them twice a year. The Jan­uary borns are tough, ac­cord­ing to Suzi.

“The piglets come out in the freez­ing weather and some­how latch on to the milk bar and just get warm and grow and cope. It’s an in­cred­i­ble thing to see. It’s easy to sell them when they’re born at this time of year as lots of peo­ple who want the good life take two or three, en­joy them through the spring and sum­mer months, feed­ing them from al­lot­ments and or­chards, and then

As the sow has long ears, she doesn’t see so well, so to sur­vive not be­ing trod­den on the piglets squeal at the slight­est thing and mum turns into a bal­let dancer. It’s all very clever

they pop them in the freezer for the best meat they say they’ve ever tasted.

“I al­ways ad­vise them to take the pigs off to the abat­toir at six months old as this is a big enough car­cass for any fam­ily for their year’s sup­ply of pork. Af­ter this age the Large Blacks gen­er­ally just lay down fat and then you are eat­ing fatty pork. It’s a skill you learn as you go, so mostly the sec­ond batch of pigs peo­ple keep will be leaner. They al­ways come back the fol­low­ing spring for more, say­ing they adore the breed, and they are in­deed an easy first pig to keep.”

Suzi and Stu­art’s pigs are all free range, per­haps not some­thing ev­ery wannabe farmer would want to tackle in a cold, muddy win­ter.

“Even I wouldn’t ad­vise keep­ing pigs through the win­ter,” says Suzi, who adds: “We pick out the best piglets for breed­ing to keep for show­ing and breed­ing and look for breed stan­dard.”

With Large Blacks, mea­sur­ing up means that not one white hair is al­lowed, they should boast 14 to 16 even work­ing teats, no in­verted nip­ples, a good, straight back, strong, straight legs, ears to the nose and in pro­por­tion, with good round bot­toms (hams).

“This is not as easy as you think,” says Suzi. “Last year we had four lit­ters of piglets and we haven’t kept one for show­ing. If they aren’t up to scratch for the ring it costs a lot of money to keep them, and then I wouldn’t be able to sell them as that wouldn’t be help­ing the breed. We are look­ing for per­fec­tion and if I turned up af­ter my suc­cesses — and be­ing a judge my­self as well — my fel­low pig pals would have a field day. You don’t win young pig of the year and best pig out of 400 en­tries at the Great York­shire Show by tak­ing out any­thing other than su­per smart.”

Suzi has sent pigs to Amer­ica for breed­ing and she says that sell­ing on goes way over and above fi­nan­cial con­sid­er­a­tions.

“I want them to do the buyer well and I want to be proud of my pigs. We love to set peo­ple up to en­joy them. It’s the key to peo­ple car­ry­ing on keep­ing the Large Black.”

Not ev­ery pig has long floppy ears on this farm, how­ever. There is one in­ter­loper in the form of Lar­retta. She is a Berk­shire sow.

“She’ll live out her days with us as she’s a gor­geous cham­pion and be­cause we’re soft farm­ers and she’s our friend,” smiles Suzi.

For more in­for­ma­tion, visit www.face­book. com/Choller-Farms-Pigs-539424419490762/; www.large­black­pigs.org.uk/

Large Blacks are born vo­cal so that the sow, who can­not see well due to her floppy ears, knows where her piglets are

Suzi We­stron with one of her young Large Blacks — the We­strons av­er­age 10 piglets per lit­ter

Large Blacks do have a tem­per if pro­voked

The breed is Stu­art We­stron’s favourite

Large Blacks are long, so the bacon is a good size

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