Autumn in the New Forest has long been associated with pigs. Each September inhabitants of the forest exercise an age-old right of letting their pigs roam freely amongst the trees for a fee of just £1. But pannage, as this ancient practice is known, is not simply a ceremony – the New Forest depends on it.
In medieval Britain, Pannage gave certain New Forest landowners (commoners) the chance to fatten their pigs on acorns, crab apples and beach mast before slaughter later in the autumn. The nine week pannage season was originally fixed between 25 September and 22 November. In the 19th century up to 6,000 pigs were turned out into the New Forest but these days it is far fewer ? less than 300 last year.
Pannage Season is no longer fixed; the Forestry Commission arranges the dates each year in accordance with the arrival of autumn. This year Pannage starts on Saturday September 23 and head agister Jonathan Gerrelli hopes there will be a better showing of pigs than in 2005. ?Less people are exercising the right because there is not a lot of money in pigs and they are hard work,? he explains.
But the Right of Mast, as the custom is known, is not only a good way of fattening up pigs but a surviving example of traditional land management in open heath and woodland. New Forest ponies and cattle govern the character and ecology of the forest but in autumn they risk being poisoned by green acorns. ?Certain ponies develop a taste for them and gorge themselves to death,? says Mr Gerrelli. The annual introduction of pigs, a species unaffected by eating acorns, helps prevent unnecessary deaths. ?This year there is a glut of acorns,? Mr Gerrelli explains, ?So hopefully more pigs will be let out.?
New Forest officials hope the current fashion for organic, locally produced food will help bolster the dwindling New Forest pork market as well as the declining Right of Mast. ?If commoners can buy the pigs cheaply enough and sell them at Salisbury market or other farmers? markets in time for Christmas they will be able to make money. People like to source food locally and you can?t get much more organic than a New Forest pig.?