Pigs in the forest

"Under the trees we saw huge pigs, with noses trailing to the ground." (Sinbad the Sailor)

                    For almost twenty years I have been living in the Cevennes, a hilly countryside in the South of France, surrounded by a small herd of marvelous, delicious and healthy black pigs. My motto has become: happy meat is healthy meat.
                    The pig is the only farm animal living in almost perfect symbiosis with the forest. I would even state that without the pig (but with some human beings), today, in many areas this forest will be doomed. As the result of a curious, and possibly fatal, confluence of historical events, man has turned his back to the forest and has deemed it necessary to cultivate plains and eat bread. The pig gets it’s food from the forest without destroying it, it makes the forest fire-free and in the end turns it into a beneficial and profitable environment. On some fifty hectares of woodland, divided into parks, a family of peasants can make a living, with the addition of a flock of sheep, which eat what the pigs forsake, and a sizeable amount of forest dwelling poultry, by planting fruit trees and cultivating vegetables on available clearings. Part of the nearby village’s food supply will consist henceforth of this locally grown, input-free product, reducing thereby expensive transportation and garanteeing the universally called for sustainability.


                    The advantage of having pigs in the forest, eventually in company with sheep, lies in the fact that this animal lives, as said, in almost perfect symbiosis with it, as long as the youngest trees are big enough, let's say two years old, in order not to be destroyed by the uprooting habits of these little devils. A pig ploughs where he can, aerates and manures the soil, digs out and eats the roots of bracken, bramble, in brief, prepares a fire-free medium for the development of the original forest trees, here mainly chestnut, holm oak, varieties of maple, cherry and apple, which, once established, will be essentially immune to forest fires. In our case, the only human intervention will consist of the more or less total eradication of the pine trees, which, by the way, present the happy peculiarity of not growing back from the roots. Their seedlings will either be uprooted by the pigs, eaten by the sheep, or unable to develop under the then commencing canopy. Once the original forest is restored, the pig population will have to be adapted to it's intrinsic nutritive capacities, whether chestnuts or acorns.

                    The overall landscape here consists of hilly slopes, often covered in age-old terraces, the walls of which have for a great part crumbled through the lack of maintenance in the last century and the exclusive keeping of herbivores. The destructive effect of heavy rains on the soil of these mountain slopes is well known; after several forest fires sometimes only the bare rock is visible, with a few pine trees clutching to crevices. A multitude of hooves tramples the vegetation, hardens the top soil; the running herd loosens the upper wall stones, erosion sets in, creating gullies through which the water runs down, faster and faster. It’s the beginning of desertification.
Pigs have also been accused of baring the soil and destroying terrace walls. This is true only to a certain degree. Because pigs are neither jumpers nor runners, they will follow a wall to a manageable opening and keep using this passage. Moreover, apart from baring the soil, they also plough it in a way which reminds me of Swiss farmers, who, with their horses or dapper little tractors, draw their furrows perpendicular to the slope, such as to prevent the water from running. Pigs do better than furrows, they dig deep holes if the earth is loose enough, augmenting the water retention capacity of the soil by several orders of magnitude. The next time, they dig a hole just beside an existing one, filling it up with loose earth, and so forth. After a while the forest floor may look like a "battlefield" and there may be erosion problems, but these can be managed through locally creating barriers, either made from treetrunks, or by building a dry stone wall from the stones the pigs have, over the years, conveniently assembled at the bottom of a slope. As soon as a park can be freed, within a rotational system for instance, it can be sown in during a wet spell with rye, alfalfa or vetch. In my case there is enough weed seed in the ground to cover the soil of these parks in green within a couple of months, even under big trees. Remember, the pigs have prepared an excellent seed bed. When feeding them I throw some of the grain on their hairy backs for distribution during their ramblings later on.
                    But their main function, and were it the only one, it would be good enough reason for keeping them, is to make the nascent forest fire free. It is a lot cheaper than doing some patch- clearing with bulldozers - what people here call "glueing stamps"-, which amounts to a costly and polluting effort of stripping a square piece of slope and replanting trees. After a few years, if no effective weeding is done, the whole thing may go up in flames again. Even if the means of fighting these fires have become increasingly efficient, - during the summer months we watch the circus of fire planes - it is altogether going to be a costly effort, and one may wonder whether the outcome will be sustainable or economically profitable.


                    The area covered by forests in our commune is huge. The oldest trees are not more than fourty to fifty years old, exception made for a very few sheltered spots. As said before, a big part of it burns every ten years due to lack of care and the presence of non-indigenous pine which have been introduced when mining began, it’s wood being used all over the world for pit-props, since it is believed to creak before it snaps. For the time being, in this area, only the hunting societies are seasonally active in the landscape. The state draws a questionable profit from it, through the sales of arms and licences; a rather flourishing parallel economy, based on the illicit trade of game, has been developing these last years, but it is clear that the hunting itself is going to be more and more regulated, and will end up either as mainly an affair for rich people and poachers, - back to the Middle Ages, - or disappear altogether as a result of the mellowing of our moral outlook on this kind of activity.
                    If the village council would decide upon a policy of having pigs take care of the rough maintenance of these forests, it would be possible to sustain a herd of some thousands. For that purpose it would suffice to enclose the village, its gardens and the roads crossing it, with simple sheep fence, plus, on one or both sides, an electric one, consisting of a single, well tended cable through ceramic insulators.
                    Since there would be strong opposition from the hunting community, as well as for reasons of practical management, it probably would be wiser to start with smaller parks, covering a single slope for instance, with "green" strips between the parks for the shelter of wildlife, reducing the size of the herd by a similar amount. A few swineherds or -herdesses will have to be employed, depending on the size of the herd. The expenses are limited to the acquisition of a few kilometres of fencing. I have put up approximately seven kilometres of it, using my own chestnut posts, and where possible, trees, -an overshadowed fence needing less maintenance-, a chain saw and a couple of winters working in the healthy mountain air.


                    There is of course a need for large scale agriculture: big towns and the world have to be fed. Partly this agriculture will have to be intensive and industrial, without necessarily sacrificing the idea of quality. With my little herd I can feed a limited number of families; only a few privileged seekers after quality have found their way to my pigs, or to other farmers who raise their animals under comparable conditions. But what we do would hardly be called agriculture, nowadays. It is an excellent way to live though. And this same perspective can be upheld whithin a wider scope. A village like ours would be able to supply the needs of a small town without pollution and heavy infrastructural expenses. A few young or less young healthy peasants, each living on something like 50 hectares of new forest would be added to a local population consisting now mainly of elderly or jobless people. Forest fires would not occur anymore and the wood would become exploitable. Extrapolating from our own situation, one can rear on five thousand hectares something like 50 000 chickens, five thousand pigs and as many sheep, if the land is divided adequately in parks. There will be room for maybe a hundred new families

                    Millions of hectares of neglected forest and fallow land are available. For each region calculations have to be made locally as to the nature of the original forest, the population of animals, the size of the parks, etc. Natural wildlife will find its expression within reservations, which may equally serve as hunting areas. The restoration of forests is a global priority, even if their role in the absorbtion of greenhouse gases has to be reconsidered. It might not be unwise to consider extensive pigherding as a possible contribution towards it. The naïvety of such a proposal should not surprise: the logic of nature is accepted without too much questioning by animals, plants and children. We, men, have not finished trying to understand her. Our mastery however is at that price.

                    As said, it would be a mistake to think that intensive and large scale agriculture will not remain indispensable for a long time to come in order to feed the towns and the world. It can be limited however to certain regions, where I imagine it could be managed, with the huge mechanical means at our disposal, on narrow lanes, the width of a motorway, and almost it’s length, any length in fact, separated from each other by equally wide or wider strips of natural forest, connected with each other here and there by a tunnel.
This agricultural strategy has several advantages: in the first place a forest will consider this kind of strips as no more than an ordinary, a bit lengthy clearing and will therefore behave as any undisturbed wild forest, providing the necessary biodiversity, and secondly, the cultures grown in these lanes will benefit from the protection of the near-by forest, which will absorb the unbalancedness resulting from artificiality and disrupt the windblown or otherwise propagated spreading of diseases or pests. The cultivating and harvesting of let’s say a hundred kilometre track is moreover a relatively easier job and could also be easier robotised.
Such a revolution will not be possible without autoritarian state intervention. In times of war such an intervention is considered acceptable. The struggle for our survival may be worth such a sacrifice.

© Augustin Thyssen, 1999