Being allowed to let pigs out on the New Forest for a limited time each year, has made a significant difference to the lives of Forest folk for countless generations. At times when nationwide poverty was high, having the meat from a pig or the cash that selling it gave, was very important to many Forest families. The right to release pigs onto the New Forest is called pannage or common of mast.
Pigs and pannage in the New Forest were as vitally important to not only the commoners but also their livestock. This right of pannage is also very important to the health of ponies and cattle also. Until recent times the right of pannage was used much more and thousands of pigs would flood the Forest for a while each year. This common of mast also helps sweep the Forest of acorns. Which can prove fatal for ponies and cattle. Especially so in a “mast year” when the fruiting woodland trees produce a exceptional crop. Normally less than a handful of livestock animals die from acorn poisoning; but in 2013, a mast year, 90 ponies and cattle died. Nowadays about 3 or 4 hundreds pigs are depastured onto the Forest during pannage season.
The Forest existed in the first place as a hunting ground for the king. The most challenging quarry to hunt would have been the domesticated pigs ancestor,the wild boar. This imposing animal was admired for its courage and aggression by those who hunted it. It’s image would decorate shields or sometimes be mounted on top of the helmet of an armoured knight.
Unlike the pony, the New Forest no longer has its own breed of pig. Several breeds of British pigs of contrasting colours can be seen on the Forest in the autumn enjoying the food and the freedom of the greenwood.
In this age of efficiency and demand for cheap food many old breeds have died out or been engineered to adapt to factory farm conditions. We have payed a high price for cheap food in terms of both the quality of the animals life and the healthiness of the finished product. A free ranging animal eating what nature intended is going to be generally fit and healthy and able to provide lean health promoting meat. Thankfully in the Forest at least some of the old breeds can be seen enjoying life in a natural setting during the autumn. At this time their owners, the commoners, let them out to forage for acorns, chestnuts, beech mast and other rich pickings found on the Forest floor.
Some of the different pigs that you might see in the Forest:
The Tamworth pig
While the spotted pigs are the most popular with visitors, the breed of choice for the discerning commoner is often the Tamworth. It’s coat, which can be ginger through to rusty red, rather than stand out like spots, blends in with the autumn colours.
Known for its hardiness and resistance to windy cold conditions the Tamworth is also popular in such places as Canada and Scotland. When my Irish cousins neighbours kindly showed me their Tamworth pigs they gave the credit for the breeds creation to the English, not mentioning the role that Irish pigs had played. The breed originated on the estate of Sir Robert Peel at Tamworth in Staffordshire in 1812. Sir Robert had his existing herd crossed with pigs known as Irish grazers. The man responsible for giving us the British police force also gave us an outstanding breed of pig.
The Tamworth has a relatively small litter size and this is one of a few factors that make it uncompetitive with more modern breeds and it is now listed as both threatened and vulnerable. The Tamworth can thrive on bracken. The all pervasive bracken is no longer cut for animal bedding by the commoners, shades out and hinders the growth of grass. An animal which clears the ground of bracken increases the grazing available for ponies. In the delicate balance of the Forest the Tamworth has a useful role to play.
The Gloucestershire Old Spots pig
The distinctive spotted coat of the Gloucester makes it easy to spot. Highly valued for its mild disposition and self sufficancy, the spotted coat of this pigs ancestors can be seen in paintings going back for hundreds of years. It’s other name is the cottagers pig which is a big clue as to why it is well suited to the small scale farming, or commoning practiced in the New Forest since the days of old and beyond. The Gloucester is descended from both the Lincolnshire curly coat and the Cumberland. Now extinct, both breeds live on in these colourful characters, to the delight of Forest visitors both young and old.
The British Saddleback pig
As with the Old Spot, the British Saddleback is easy to pick out due to its distinctive colouring. This breed of pig is almost entirely black apart from a band or sheet of white covering it’s shoulders and having white feet and tail.
An amalgamation of two older breeds which shared the same type of distinctive colouring, the British Saddle Back has been described as a pig of self helpful and serene disposition. Unable to compete on a commercial footing with the more modern breeds, this outdoor pig has found a niche with the expansion of organic farming.
The pigs reputation as a dirty animal is undeserved. Pigs are by nature both clean and intelligent. The reason that pigs love to wallow in mud is very understandable and practical when you realise that the pigs skin makes it very vulnerable to sun burn. Even more at risk is the modern mass produced white skinned variety of pig.
To commercial interests, wanting a pig that puts weight on at the quickest possible rate, resistance to the suns rays is of little consequence. For the British Saddleback it’s predominantly black colour and greater resistance to the sun has added to its appeal in countries such as Nigeria were it now flourishes.
The Wessex Saddleback pig
This pig which originated in the New Forest is sadly no longer seen there as it is now extinct in Britain. An excellent foraging animal it is said to have thrived in the pasture woodland of the Forest for many hundreds of years. The Wessex was one of the two foundation breeds of the British Saddleback, to which it past on its distinctive colouring.
Happily the Wessex was exported to Australia about eighty years ago where there are nine registered herds of this old Forest breed. The Rare Breed Society Of Australia now supports the one hundred and fifty remaining sows in that country. Top Australian chefs prize the breed for it’s particularly tasty meat.There are another hundred Wessex pigs in New Zealand were this lost part of the New Forest clings on for now.
Horse riding and pigs
You see many horse boxes towed through the Forest on their way to distant shows or competitions. Few of these horse boxes or lorries stop to enjoy the adventure and education that riding in the New Forest can give. There are several reasons why people might be reluctant to ride in the Forest, perhaps the most obvious being the fear of getting lost. Much of the Forest is relatively flat and so does not provide lots of distinct land marks such as prominent hills from which to get your bearings.
Another consideration when riding in the Forest is how your horse or pony might react if you meet some pigs. Horses and ponies that are not used to pigs will probably panic especially if your encounter is unexpected and up close. Just the unfamiliar smell of pigs in an area can cause tension in the horse that’s not used to them and if a pig suddenly pops up from behind a bush you might have a very exciting ride indeed.
Pigs are only allowed on the Forest during pannage which lasts for about eight weeks in the autumn. Some sows that have proven that they are well behaved are allowed to stay out longer and the rules are different in the north of the Forest which is looked after by the National Trust rather than the Verderers Court at Lyndhurst. There are still some stables in the Forest that provide hacking normally for either one or two hours. At these establishments visitors can ride mounts that are used to pigs and you will be accompanied by guides so you won’t get lost or get stuck in a bog.
Dog walking, pigs and other livestock
No matter how well behaved your dog might be in the environment that it is used to if it has ant grown up in the Forest watch out. You might know your dog really well but in a natural environment where ancient instincts can be triggered your dog can become a different animal that you don’t know. Pony foals have had their throats ripped out by the dogs down from the town. Unlike a vulnerable new born foal a pig with young to protect is a very tough animal with a nasty bite. There is a wolf inside every dog and when the old instinct kicks in your dog can become oblivious to you and your commands.
Only yesterday when I was walking my dogs in the Avon valley, which boarders the Forest, I was reminded of the dangers of dogs around livestock. A friend that I bumped into out riding his bike warned me about the cows on a near by nature reserve where the owner has the right to shoot dogs that are out of control and had done so in the past. About a year ago two dogs were shot that got in with sheep, they lived in the National Park and had escaped from their home. With two dogs or more the pack instinct is triggered and the problems,that can suddenly arise in seconds, are ten times worse. A dog that chases deer can end up miles away and really ruin your day or worse.
Unless your dog has grown up around all these exciting things so that they are no longer exciting it really is best to keep your dog on a lead in the Forest. You want your visit to the New Forest to be a pleasant memory not a tragedy that you can never forget.
The Wild Boar
Wild boar were once a native species to the British woodland but became extinct many years ago. In recent years some captive boars escaped and have become established as breeding populations in both Sussex and Dorset. There have been some sightings of wild boar in the Forest from time to time but not in the numbers that it takes to establish a breeding population. With wolves and the lynx long extinct in England, nature no longer has a predator capable of keeping their numbers in check. Just as with the exploding deer population across the country, if the boar became a problem it is only man who can help nature get back in balance. Only active at night and extremely shy of people, wild boar are unlikely to do any harm to humans if left alone. Thousands of wild boar live in France were they have never been extinct and with controlled hunting to keep there numbers in balance they are not considered a problem there.
Hunting Wild Boar
Hunting wild boar from horseback before guns were invented would have taken a lot of courage and skill. When wounded these animals are very dangerous and the males are armed with tusks. Hunting was the way that warriors perfected and tested their weapons and horsemanship skills. Dogs nets and spears were the essential tools of the trade for hunting wild boar.
You would also need an extremely well trained horse that you could trust with your life as if you were thrown to the ground and hurt or winded, you may have to face the slashing tusks of a wounded angry boar from a ground level position.
A gem of living history
The domestic pig and the wild boar, have played a significant role in the lives of the Forest community for a thousand years or more. The Forest folk for countless generations have appreciated the highest quality organic meat long before the marketing word organic existed. For Forest families, sometimes with twelve children, pigs and the right of pannage could be the difference between feast or famine.
The mighty oak the King of the Forest can produce up to fifty thousand acorns once it reaches maturity after fifty years of growth. Strong autumn winds can shower the Forest floor with acorns, beech mast and chestnuts which are eagerly eaten by the commoners pigs. Forest folk have always fought fiercely to keep their ancient rights.They valued highly having a degree of self sufficiency and that bit more independence than most. Perhaps we should thank the commoning community who have stubbornly resisted the outside experts attempts to change the Forest and their ancient ways. It is amazing that this one hundred and fifty square mile gem of living history has survived into modern times. In an age where rights are being eroded slowly but surely and power becoming more centralised and remote, can their example teach us something?
For the privileged few the wild boar of the Forest was a teacher of both horseback and martial skill. Deep in Hampshires’ great greenwood nerves were tested and strong bonds formed. The communication between rider and dogs must have been almost telepathic as they hunted down a dangerous beast together. The ancient ritual of the hunt, practiced since the dawn of time is now a thing of the past. We are now In an age of health and safety were a public employee who trips up at work can cost the tax payer thousands. It has taken but a brief time for modern man to be worlds apart from the medieval warrior spirit of old. Thankfully in The New Forest at least something of the medieval and beyond lingers to be savoured by the discerning visitor.