Farming

Born To Run: The Rare Pigs That Are Britain’s Answer To Iberico-Style Ham

30th May 2019

Think acorn-fed pork is the preserve of prized Spanish Ibérico ham? Think again. Meet the new breed of farmers rearing pigs rarer than the Siberian tiger in the fertile woods of the Brecon Beacons.

Woodland-raised rare breed pigs at Forest Coal Pit Farmin the foothills of the Black Mountains near Abergavenny, Wales

Woodland-raised rare breed pigs at Forest Coal Pit Farm in the foothills of the Black Mountains near Abergavenny, Wales. Image: Jade Holford

Travel to the cascading hills of the Black Mountains and you’ll find the lush pastures and ancient woodland of a lovingly restored farm. In 2014, Lauren Smith and Kyle Holford swapped hectic London life and a one-bed flat for a rural farmhouse and a 20 acre farm in a national park on the Welsh borders.

Armed with a yearning for a good life in the country and an ambition to raise meat to their own high standards of welfare and quality, they discovered three rare breeds of pig who roam freely (often making a dash for it) and forage for grass, nuts and fruit on their land. But this was no happy accident.

Wales’ answer to pannage pork

When Lauren and Kyle moved they wanted to do things differently. Aware that the landscape for pig farming in the UK isn’t a particularly positive one – 90% of the UK’s pork is reared indoors and only three percent of pigs will spend their entire lives outside – the couple were faced with finding a fresh approach. “We knew we could never compete on scale with big commercial farms and at the same time raise animals to the standards we think they should be raised, which is important,” says Lauren.

The small herd of 20 sows and 250 piglets at Forest Coal Pit are raised entirely outside. Up to a third of their feed is from natural forage such as hazelnuts, blackberries, apples and acorns found in their woodland. The meat is flavoursome and has a deep, rich colour as a result. “Simply being outside for the pigs makes such a difference to the meat. What you find in the supermarket tends to be quite pale and insipid, whereas ours are outside working and getting all that exercise which really helps.”

Forest Coal Pit Loin Chop

Rich in colour with marbled meat: the Forest Coal Pit acorn-fed pork loin chop. Image: Natale Towell

The great lengths Lauren and Kyle will go to to encourage natural behaviour makes their meat comparable to the acorn-fattened pigs of Iberico ham and also to the ‘pannage pork’ of the New Forest. This is the medieval autumn practice of releasing local pigs into the forest who clear it of acorns which are poisonous to its ponies and cattle if they eat too many. The pair are also replanting more forest and filling it with wild pears, apples and walnuts that they “can’t wait to get the pigs onto”.

“We’re so open, you can see the provenance on Instagram”

Their swift transition from long days in the office to even longer days in the field was a steep learning curve for the self-taught first-time farmers. “Neither of us had any background in farming whatsoever and it’s just the two of us. When Kyle and I first started we did everything together – farming, land management, butchery and marketing – and as we’ve grown we’ve divided and conquered” Lauren chuckles.

Social media has been pivotal in sharing their story and connecting with other like-minded farmers around the world shaking up the system. Knepp, a rewilding project in West Sussex who use free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife, and Gothlenely Farm who rear sustainable pork whilst reintroducing heritage crops in Somerset, are both a huge inspiration for their pioneering farming practises that work with the land.

“We’re not registered with any association (such as Red Tractor or Soil Association) to help promote our product which can cost a lot of money for a small farm like us. However, people can just look us up on Instagram, whether it’s chefs or customers, and instantly see how the pigs are raised.”

The internet also came in handy after an incident involving a sharp knife and a severed tendon for Kyle. Lauren took on all the butchery having learnt the craft via the many chefs and butchers sharing their skills on YouTube. “The best thing is how we have the whole farm-to-fork process right on our doorstep. We breed the pigs, raise the piglets and have them slaughtered down the road in Talgarth at W.J.George. Then I’m the one actually butchering it and sending out deliveries. We have complete control over provenance.”

Slow-grown talent

After the big move it took a year and the help of half of the village to restore the dilapidated sheep farm into one suitable for raising pigs on a diet of forage. “We’ve put in a variety of deep-rooting grasses that pigs enjoy to get away from a monoculture” Lauren reveals.

It took another year for the couple to test 12 different breeds to find which suited living solely outdoors and in a natural forest habitat. Settling on a mix of the Large Black, Duroc and Mangatam rare breed pigs, the chefs they work with coined it ‘Welsh Black’ and the name stuck.

The Large Black, rarer than the Siberian tiger

With only 250 breeding sows left, the Large Black pig really is the rarest of the rare breeds. It’s Britain’s only all-black pig and is regarded as being rarer than the Siberian tiger. Large Blacks make up the majority of Lauren and Kyle’s herd, thrive outside and are excellent at finding forage. A friendly and relaxed pig, the “only trouble is when they get to 150 kilos and they still want to use your leg as a scratching post” says Lauren.

Large Black pigs at Forest Coal Pit Farm

The Large Black at Forest Coal Pit Farm. The breed is large and long with “beautiful meat but a little too much back fat”. When crossed with the Duroc which “has excellent marbling, it’s the best of both worlds”. Image: Jaks Pemberton

Then there’s the clever and agile Mangatam – a cross between a Mangalitza and a Tamworth pig. “We only have one left called Aerial. She rules the place, fences can’t hold her. She’s used for breeding and produces lots of beautiful piglets”. Very close to a wild boar, their thick coat and slow-growing nature makes them a true forest pig.

Foraging for a pig revolution

It’s easy to underestimate just how rare it is for pigs to be reared entirely outdoors; even if uttering the words ‘outdoor’ and ‘pigs’ together sounds completely intuitive. With just 3% reared this way, Lauren thinks it’s about time for a pig revolution.

Forest Coal Pit Lauren with boar Prince

Lauren with the farm’s prized boar Prince. Image: Forest Coal Pit Farm

“In the same way there was a free-range chicken and egg revolution, we all became aware of how they were raised and were also outraged. This was to the point where almost everywhere now only stocks free-range eggs – from supermarkets to McDonald’s. I’d like to see the same for pigs. They’re intelligent creatures and need plenty of space and mental stimulation. People sometimes say: ‘it sounds like you love pigs, aren’t you sad when they go?’. But I would rather someone bought a pig from me that’s had a great life than buy an intensively indoor-reared one.”

Catch Forest Coal Pit on Countryfile on BBC iPlayer and shop the range at farmdrop.com.

Proud of their pork, Lauren, Kyle and the pigs would love to see you and welcome visits anytime.

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