As numbers of Welsh pedigree pigs took a tremendous dip, husband and wife team Huw and Ela Roberts pride themselves on restoring the breed’s popularity and creating a business to help their traditional farm survive.
Gaina Morgan finds out more....
At FFridd Farm, also known as Oinc Oink, on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales, Huw and Ela Roberts are entering their busiest period.
Keeping rare breed Welsh pedigree pigs on their 48-hectare (120-acre) farm which rises from 61 metres (200 feet) to 137m (450ft) above sea level, demand for their award-winning ‘UK’s top sausage,’ as well as gammon, bacon and hog roasts, peaks at this time of year.
It began in 2007, when Huw mentioned that he wanted a couple of gilts.
As the fifth generation at Ffridd Farm he remembers his father keeping pigs there, yet it is a sector which has decreased in Wales over the last 20 years, with pig numbers dropping by almost 75 per cent to 23,000.
Their choice of the rare breed Welsh pig has attracted much media interest and after appearing on well known Welsh language programme on S4C, Ffermio, they received an order from the local supermarket, Spar, which has led to a thriving business.
Their renowned sausage, made from home-produced pork and Welsh Vintage Cheddar, recently won the UK Butcher Shop of the Year champion of champions title in London, and it is the latest in a series of accolades and awards that have encouraged Huw and Ela to sell all their pigs, beef and lamb directly from the farm to smaller shops, local independent butchers and the consumer.
Together with their eight-yearold son, Emyr, and six-year-old daughter, Anest, the couple know each of their 30 sows by name, as well as all the various bloodlines.
They also keep a very special eight-year-old foundation sow, Gwynys Model 307, which was, uniquely, the Welsh Pig champion of champions four times and although she no longer takes the boar, the family feels it owes her a lot.
Aside from the sentimental value of some of their herd, the couple does, however, take a hard-headed approach to business and marketing and even with a focus on high welfare, is realistic about how best to rear the herd.
With a view to portray their story in all its glory, they are more than happy to argue the case for their use of farrowing crates and their importance in keeping piglets alive, regardless of the public’s perspective on this method.
“We don’t personally like to use the farrowing crate, but it’s for the benefit of the piglets,” Ela says.
“If they were just in a loose pen, there would be more chance that the sow would lie down and squash them.
“We’ve had to start using them, especially when we had very big litters. The biggest we ever had was 21 piglets.”
The couple has almost 30 breeding sows which all have two litters per year and on average, at least 10 piglets per year, keeping them mostly outside.
Ela says: “We keep a note of when they have all been served so we know an exact due date for them and then depending on the weather, they’ll tend to be outside until a few days before they are due to farrow.
“It’s the longer the better as that’s best for their health.
“We like to see them outside as much as possible. They come in to the farrowing crates to farrow, just until the piglets get strong enough so that we can move them to a bigger pen between seven and 10 days old, where they stay there with the mother.
“People tend to think it’s cruel, but it’s about the welfare of the piglet.
“If we could get the same rate of success without the crate, then we definitely wouldn’t use them but it’s essentially to keep the piglets alive.”
The couple starts creep feeding the piglets at about three weeks of age and they are not weaned until eight weeks, so that they have the best possible start. They are bedded on straw and after three to five days, the sow returns on heat and is put back in with the boar.
With this cycle of three months, three weeks, three days, they hopefully get two litters per sow per year and like to use their own boars, with the older ones going to the sows and the younger to the gilts.
Huw selects Welsh pigs with the biggest hams, which is a breed trait and they have a lower daily liveweight gain than a commercial hybrid, at 600-700g. This, and the extra costs of smaller scale production means that the customer is asked to pay a premium, both with direct sales and in retail outlets.
The couple’s many successes in the showring are also very important and the latest rosettes have come at the Royal Welsh Winter Fair, where they took reserve supreme champion for the overall best pair of pork pigs and the best single pork pig.
The porker, the lightest weight pigs, are sold at about four-and-ahalf months at up to 65/70kg through farmers’ markets and local butchers, while others are kept on to six months for curing as bacon and ham, and again sold directly to the consumer.
It is a highly labour-intensive system, but the couple is increasingly grateful for a new appreciation of taste and for the back story that is developing among certain sectors.
Huw says: “We can’t compete with what’s in the supermarkets really. This is a totally different product and that is what London showed, winning the champion of champions title with the sausages.
“Breeds like the Welsh pigs have more or less been superseded by these hybrids in the commercial side of pig farming.
“Everybody wants figures with everything. Personally, I think there’s too much obsession with numbers born alive, fat and millimetres and all that. They’ve lost the taste side.”
The couple accepts their system demands a premium price, but is confident that people are interested enough in the welfare and the story behind the product.
They have local customers, people who travel into the area and those whose orders are delivered by courier, but the seasonality of the marketing takes a considerable amount of forward planning.
The direct marketing of the pigs has proved so successful Huw and Ela have extended this idea to the small herd of 12 Beef Shorthorn suckler cows, initially brought by Ela from her home farm in Llanrwst, and to the more recently acquired herd of 18 Welsh Black cattle.
The beef is reared extensively on grass on the farm, slaughtered at 24 to 28 months and hung for at least three weeks.
They also run 15 Welsh Mules ewes and both the beef and lamb are boxed and delivered to customers who generally hear of the farm via Facebook or word of mouth.
There are challenges, though, as the nearest abattoir has closed, and the couple now faces a half-day round trip taking the stock to the abattoir at Corwen, followed by another half-day to pick up the meat.
There are also decisions to be made on whether to invest in improving and upgrading.
Improved facilities for finishing the pigs would allow more mechanisation instead of Huw having to muck out by hand and a new cold room and cutting area would also considerably save on labour.
But ultimately, they are happy they have strong links in a very close-knit, rural and Welsh-speaking community, and can farm sustainably with their family on a traditional farm that would have been unable to support them.