Jack Flusk and Katie Swift are safeguarding the future of the historic saddleback bloodline through conservation grazing sites.
Emily Ashworth visits the couple to see how preserving the breed plays a part in preserving the land too.
In British agriculture, our livestock breeds are fundamental in our history, some iconic in their name and proud representations of infamous rural regions.
Many have stood the test of time. But for some, their bloodlines are decreasing rapidly and many people in the farming community are fighting to preserve their heritage.
For the Saddleback pig, numbers are running scarily low. With less than 500 breeding sows left, the breed was listed as an endangered species by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) in 2007 and is listed as a minority in the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Established in 1967, the breed was borne from merging two surviving traditional Saddleback breeds, the Essex and the Wessex.
But its longevity is of great importance to young couple Jack Flusk and Katie Swift, thanks to their collective aim to preserve this historic bloodline. What’s more, they have also created a unique sustainable farming and conservation system, rearing pigs on various sites across the north west of England and North Wales.
With both only 28 years old and bringing up a young family of three, the couple began their business, Conservation Pigs, five years ago and are enthused when delving in to why they opted for the British Saddleback as the breed at the heart of their enterprise.
Neither has a background in farming but, after each completing a BSc in rural resource management at Myerscough College, Lancashire, they found a shared interest in
The idea is to graze rare breed pigs across multiple woodland habitats to enhance the conservation and management of landscapes, securing contracts either privately or with Government organisations such as Natural England. At their Haigh Woodland Park site, a natural public attraction in Wigan, you can witness how the couple is preserving and using a breed under threat to manage and restore native woodland species also at risk.
Here the pigs roam across 100 Hectares (250 acres), foraging naturally to promote regeneration in the soil and remove dominant, unwanted species.
“It is a completely sustainable system,” says Katie.
“We’re not relying on anything but the conservation with the pigs, which generates income in itself, and then the process is finished with the meat from the Saddlebacks.
“The money from the sale of meat is then invested back in to fencing, moving to different sites and expanding our own herd.
“The reality is, if we don’t eat it, we will lose the breed completely.”
Since starting at this site 18 months ago, species which had been non-existent in the woodland have now been recorded since the Saddlebacks were introduced.
Jack says: “There hasn’t been much management of this site for the past 50 years and we are seeing evidence of that now.
“The plans look at how we are going to look after the woodland for the next 150 years and the pigs play a key role in that.”
Out of all the breeds, Saddlebacks are known for their mothering abilities.
“It’s important we have a good, caring mum because we have them outdoors all year round. They look after their piglets well,” says Jack.
They are also perfectly fitted to the land they are grazing, unable to dig deeper than necessary due to their lop-ears.
Katie adds: “There are a lot of veteran trees in the woodland, so we don’t want them to do any damage to the roots and they can’t go far enough for that.”
With Haigh Park a firm family favourite, the business needed a breed which would fit easily in to a public environment and the docile character of a Saddleback complemented their venture.
They even have one sow, says Jack, who continually nests at the fence and births her litter in full view of spectators.
But in recent years, the Saddleback has suffered due to some undesired features.
“Being a coloured pig, it is not a favourite of the butchers, even though I think it is a fantastic meat,” says Jack.
“Selling pedigree meat helps us keep the litters going, which might provide a future pedigree breeding stock which can go off to a different breeder or be used by ourselves.
“It’s the only way were going to keep the breed alive.”
An integral part of the couple’s mission is to educate – on food production and on the breed itself.
Their butchery shop, Cook and Foragers, sits on the Haigh Woodland Park site, just a short drive away from where the Saddleback pigs are kept.
It is purposely done to give the consumer a chance to connect the food and farming dots. Katie says that with the park being a family attraction, they get repeat custom and a chance to inform children on the production process.
Furthermore, Jack speaks of the surprising popularity of his new idea, Pig Tale Trails.
The trails allowed the public to walk up the site and hear Jack’s speech about the Saddleback breed and the work at the park.
“We’ve had to make sure we now make people register online because we were inundated with thousands of people,” says Jack. “I couldn’t believe it.
“I start the talk off by telling them there are more giant pandas in the world than pedigree Saddleback pigs. That always gets their attention.
“It’s funny because sometimes I wander around incognito and can hear people reeling off the information I told them to other visitors. It is nice to hear someone proudly state this is a Saddleback pig and why they are there.”
There is sincere uncertainty and slight sadness when Jack talks about the state of the Saddleback numbers.
“They lose breeding stock each year, which is down to farmers retiring or the age of stock,” he says.
“Some other rare breeds have actually seen numbers increase, but like with all breeds, it is important to reiterate the message of how good the meat is and how important it is to keep them.
“If we have something happen again like foot-and-mouth, it could have a devastating effect on commercial pig stocks and we’d rely on the pedigree to build that back up.”
Progress in safeguarding the Saddleback breed is evident, as the couple’s business continues to grow year-on-year.
But as a young family, they are adamant in their belief that to highlight the pigs further, they will ensure people know this isn’t a conservation gimmick. Jack says: “This is not a luxury product.
“The most important side of our business is the meat side and we want the public to turn to us for our welfare standards and as a family friendly, affordable option. The more we sell, the more we breed.
“Hopefully it will help spread the word of what we’re doing to other breeders who are trying to increase the Saddleback’s profile.”
Although the Saddleback is facing uncertainty, by promoting the breed as a tourist attraction while using them as a vital conservation tool too, the interest in this family’s venture will no doubt help to increase the popularity of breed.
As Katie defiantly says, although not many realise it, there is much more to pigs than people realise.