With only 417 Middle White pigs registered last year, the commitment of breed enthusiasts has never been more vital. Alex Robinson visits pig breeders Brian Merry and Ann King to see how their work is preserving the traditional British breed for future generations.
Nestled in a quaint residential area in Northwich, Cheshire, Brian Merry, a retired car mechanic, and Ann King, a food technologist, run the Pinehurst Middle White herd on a 0.4-hectare (one-acre) plot at the back of a detached bungalow.
As respective chairman and treasurer of the Middle White Society, the pair have established a solid reputation in the showing world for breeding true-to-type pigs with both commercial and pedigree appeal.
Brian became infected with the showing bug when he began competing stock with Geoff Parker, of Kelsall Pig Farm, Tarporley, and the pair formed a formidable team on the circuit.
But the catalyst for the couple’s own success came in 1995 when Brian was gifted with his foundation female, an in-pig Middle White sow from friend Mary Card, Dorset.
Brian says: “It was Geoff who got me into pedigree breeding and I competed with him for several years before I founded Pinehurst.”
In 2005, Brian and Ann ceased Berkshire breeding, and have since focused solely on Middle White production. The choice breed only has 15 original male and female bloodlines, being maintained by 83 registered members.
Brian says: “Middle Whites are one of the remaining traditional breeds and, despite having good suckling abilities, there are only a select few people continuing the lines of the national herd.
“While the meat is tasty and provides quality small joints, more producers are introducing foreign breeds to encourage faster growth and increased size, meaning genetics are getting lost.”
Brian and Ann currently keep 10 pigs, including three boars, with two female and three male bloodlines.
Sows are usually bred to have two litters a year, with the aim of having January and July-born piglets to align the ages for necessary showing classes.
Gilts are served between nine and 12 months of age, and the average Pinehurst female produces about eight to 10 offspring per litter.
Brian says: “At two weeks old, we check underlines to observe teat placement. A Middle White must have no fewer than 12 teats and they need to be evenly spaced.
“As they grow, the potential becomes more apparent and we pick out the ones which adhere most closely to the breed standard.
“The ones which do not make the grade are sold as suckling pigs at six weeks to Pugh’s Piglets, Preston.
“We choose our breeding stock depending on what type we are wanting that year. I prefer more traditional-type pigs and lean towards sires which will maintain old-fashioned characteristics.
“With three good male lines, we are now self-sufficient and do not need to buy either semen or loan a boar.”
Fast forward to May time, and Brian and Ann will be heading with the current July batches to the Royal Welsh Spring Festival to kick-start the showing season.
They are hoping to go one better than last term, where they took the overall reserve supreme title with the any other traditional champion, Eaves Fairlady 7.
Show preparation is relatively simple, says Brian, as all prospects are made sure to be ring-ready all-year-round.
He says: “We handle pigs on a daily basis and practise guiding them at home. Some gilts have been particularly flighty in the past, so we give them lots of attention to desensitise them.
“This makes the travelling process less stressful and, once they have been to a couple of shows, they actually run onto the trailer.
“Pre- and post-showing, we worm and health check, vaccinating twice-a-year for erysipelas and detusking boars. When it comes to feeding, I rely on a basic mix of ground up barley and minerals.
“Pigs are housed inside on straw, with outside grazing access on the lawn during summer.”
Pigs are kept in roomy concrete stables at the back of the couple’s house, and manure is removed from the site by a local farmer.
One of the farm’s most successful progeny was the January 2011-born boar Pinehurst Rajah 2, which took inter-breed titles at Staffordshire and Lincoln County Show in 2012 and 2013, respectively.
The pig now resides in Ireland and has continued to be used as a sire.
The biggest occasion in the calendar is the champion of champions competition, held annually at the Great Yorkshire Show in July.
Last season, the pair qualified five pigs for the final, winning six qualifiers at some of the nation’s biggest county shows.
Ann says: “Last year was our best yet. We qualified for pig of the year at Newark with Pinehurst Rajah 4, and did the same with its sister Pinehurst Alma Rose 11 at Lincoln Show.
“At Royal Bath and West Show, we took reserve inter-breed with Alma Rose 3 and won the Flack trophy for the best pair of pigs with Rajah 4 and Pinehurst Alma Rose 11, the first time the Middle White has won the prize since 1995.”
While Brian claims there is nothing better than competing home-bred stock, he also spends his time assessing classes up and down the country, and has become a regular face on the judging scene in Southern Ireland.
He says: “I have been judging since 2005 and we have recently been involved with resurrecting pig showing in Ireland. In 2013, we made the trip overseas to judge at the first show the Irish Pig Society had hosted in many years.
“At Tullamore last year, I had the privilege of judging and presenting the Brian Merry perpetual trophy, which we donated to the inter-breed victor.”
Despite recent interest, the breed is still classified as endangered by the Rare Breed Survival Trust and is, notably, a rarer species than the giant panda.
Brian says: “The preservation of the Middle White must be continued, but its lack of commercial worth is causing it to lose out to modern breeds.
“It is difficult to find the next generation of caretakers, as it costs to manage and show traditional pigs, with little financial reward in the end.
“Smallholders are the only group keeping the breed alive and our work is pivotal to their survival. If breeders stop, we will lose the genetics of the national herd which would be a great shame.”
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