Jason Goodwin: ‘Sow is one of the mildest sweetest pigs ever. Boar is bigger, a gentleman and a scholar.’

Jason Goodwin muses over whether it's his moral duty to begin to keep pigs again, given the pork shortage soon to shake the globe.

We had pigs once, a pair of merry little ginger weaners who darted about the orchard on points, or pettitoes, scrumping windfalls and grunting cheerfully at our approach. They slipped almost imperceptibly past the porker stage and, at some pre-arranged signal, well on their way to becoming baconers at nine months, they grew quite suddenly into bristly Chesterfield sofas with a capacity for shrugging gates off their hinges.

When eventually we sent them off, several disastrous consequences ensued. The orchard was a shell-hole; the sides came back slightly too fat; I spoiled the bacon cure; and Harry became a functioning vegetarian. Pigs in other words, were not A Success.

Person holding piglet over shoulder

But, you know how it is. When you haven’t had pigs on speed dial for a while, the memories begin to fade and they undergo a curious process of Disneyfication in the mind’s eye. Rather than oinking omnivores, you begin to see them as adorable edible cherubs. Add everything I’ve read in this magazine about the advance of African swine fever and I’m starting to feel honour bound to try keeping pigs again. I look into the beeches and think what fun it would be to have a pair of bright-eyed ginger snouters, gambolling through the mast, rooting for grubs in the half-abandoned pasture.

It’s not for the money, although pork will inevitably become more expensive as the Chinese hoover up the supply. Half the world’s population of pigs live in China and pork accounts for two-thirds of the meat the people there eat, which is why the Chinese government maintains a strategic pork reserve.

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‘The cheap pork trade is a complex racket that knocks the bottom out of higher-welfare British farms and good farmers’

About 100 million pigs have been lost to the fever already, according to the aptly named analyst Adam Speck. In The Guardian, he called it ‘the largest global event for animal protein. The impacts are going to completely change the global trade in animal protein over the next 10 years, and those changes will be permanent’.

It’s no way to talk about pigs, really, but then pigs are vulnerable to people who wish to take advantage of them, as are children, hens or the elderly. Ducks and sheep keel over if anyone tries growing them like algae on a petri dish, but pigs and hens will survive intensive factory conditions, imprisonment without the option, of the sort a medieval despot might have inflicted on criminals. Hens may possibly not know they are ill-treated, but pigs are as clever as dogs and dogs can suffer.

The cheap pork trade is a complex racket that knocks the bottom out of higher-welfare British farms and good farmers. Beyond the conditions in miserable factories, objections extend to the abuse of antibiotics, the disposal of toxic waste, cheap feed imports, lobbying by big business and the effects of competition between massive supermarket chains.

A charity called Farms not Factories launched a brilliant campaign a few years back, hashtags and all, in which famous people ‘turned up their noses’ at pig-rearing plants turning out nasty pork, with a series of videos online that make grown men weep. Any pig I raise would be a pig who is living the life.

It may not rank as a global event for animal protein, but my friend Alexa at Hewood Farm has a couple of little spotted weaners ready to go. ‘Sow is an Oxford Sandy Black, one of the mildest sweetest pigs ever, medium sized,’ she writes. ‘Boar is bigger, a gentleman and a scholar, offspring always delicious.’ That’s the proper way to talk about pigs.