While lambs and calves are traditionally born in the spring, pigs give birth – or farrow – all year round. As you’d expect, we have a number of different rare breeds on our farm from old favourites the Gloucester Old Spot and the Tamworth to the cute, hairy Kune Kune. These New Zealand bush pigs were saved from extinction in the 1970s and are really friendly, docile creatures that make great pets – and sausages.
Sows give birth to anything between seven and 12 piglets at a time, but as they have at least 14 teats, the youngsters don’t go hungry. The piglets stay with their mother until they’re between six to eight weeks old before being weaned off and reared for pork or breeding stock.
Intensive pig farming
With a gestation period of three months, three weeks and three days, the average sow gives birth twice a year. On a commercial intensive system, the sow can be put back with a boar just three days after her piglets are weaned. Quite often, the weaning period itself is brought forward, cutting it down to just three weeks rather than the full six, so the pigs are ready for slaughter as quickly as possible.
My pigs are ready for pork at six to seven months and for bacon at eight. It all depends on how heavy the pig is. If your pig weighs in between 70 to 80 kilos live weight, you’re looking at a porker. On a commercial operation, it’d probably reach the required weight within just five months.
Lambing will have now finished but the lambs themselves still need our care. There’s a danger that young sheep may pick up worms from the pasture so any day now we’ll be carrying out fecal egg counts. This is every bit as glamorous as its sounds. We’ll be out collecting samples of dung so that the vet can check to see if the animals are carrying any intestinal worms. If they are, he’ll recommend a good worm drench to clear the problem up.
Worth of wool
Of course, these new lambs won’t be clipped until they’re one year old, but around now most shepherds will be thinking of shearing the rest of the flock. The sad fact is that the wool itself is worth next to nothing. In days gone by, every wardrobe in the land was bursting with good old woolly jumpers. Not any more. These days our clothes are made from nylon, polyester, lycra, and cortex and – if you’re after a touch of luxury – maybe some cashmere. The golden fleece of old has fallen out of favour.
Even though we live in a country that paid for its great houses and waged war on the proceeds of the wool trade, you’re lucky if you can get two quid for a whole fleece. And that’s on a good day. The mad thing is that it often costs more to shear a single sheep. There’s certainly no shortage of help – at the moment gangs of sheep-shearers will be touring the country. Hopefully you’ll find one that will charge around a pound a sheep, but the chances are that the people undertaking this work won’t be local lads. These days most shearing gangs hail from Australia and New Zealand. While it’s winter at home, the Aussie and Kiwi boys travel the world, shearing as they go. They’ll be here for a few months and then they’ll work their way through Europe or the States on their way back down under. It’s good money but back-breaking work, which is the real reason that there’s hardly any British shearers any more. The job’s just not attractive enough.
Shearing for health
So why do we bother shearing if the wool is largely worthless? It’s mainly a health issue. Obviously, in the height of summer you don’t want to have your sheep sweltering under the weight of a full fleece. Then there are the blow flies. These nasty little insects lay their eggs in damp wool and, as soon as they’re hatched, the maggots immediately begin to bury themselves in the sheep’s flesh. At various times, we also clip away any dirty wool around their bums, crutching it off so every member of the flock is nice and clean.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, however. Most of the wool from our farm is sold to a natural fibre firm down in Devon and the rest is exported to Ireland. Having rare breeds actually helps us out sometimes as a lot of spinners are on the look out for natural colours. There are still people out there ardently trying to save the British wool industry and quite right. It’s a huge part of our nation’s heritage and too important to let go.