Pig tales (and tails),
A little handbook for modern pigfarmers
Once upon a time, and even more than once, in the beginning, watching in the cold night the heaving heap of warm black-furred bodies, nicely smelling of Berber carpets and forest soil, with occasional grunts, belches and yes, farts rising from it, I experienced a strange feeling, a sudden craving to lie down naked amongst them and thus become part of our great Mother's peace. If I never did it ít was because of the hooves. Such a living pyramid is in a continuous movement of convection, especially during freezing weather. The animals lying on the outside crawl towards the centre, the summit spewing, like a volcano, the bodies of those which are warm and probably almost suffocating and therefore offering little or no resistance. When it's less cold, small groups lie in single layers, the little ones on top or in between.
When they're not hungry they take life easy; sleeping till the sun shines nice and warm and then getting up slowly for a foraging bout in parties made up of friends or family. If itís dry weather they return to somewhere near the watering place for another siesta, or else they remain the whole day in the woods till feeding time, when I blow the bugle and they all come running for whatever I have for them: either bread (recuperated from the local supermarkets), fish, once a week (recuperated from my friend, the fishmonger on the market), or sprouted barley or wheat from a local farmer who is too poor to put much fertiliser or any herbicides on his fields. So far, for about six months in the year, when there are sufficient chestnuts and acorns, this feeding is symbolic and intended only to keep in touch. The rest of the time they draw their health and happiness from roots, insects, earth, grass and leaves, and the occasional fox or, since this is a hunting area, stray dog.
This is the south of France. For fifteen odd years, I have been living with a small herd of pigs: I in the house, the pigs in the forest around it. When I bought this old derelict farm I had no idea about what to do with it. Monks and farmers had dwelled here for more than a thousand years, a century ago they had been lured into the mines, and when most of them had finally been killed in the first world war, only the elderly, widows and children remained to mourn the slow decline of the countryside. The mines are closed. Most new farmers in this area, often ex-hippies, start with goats. Not only does this mean a lot of work, since they have to milk them twice a day in order to produce the famous local cheese, and lead them every day into the woods, or what remains of it, - a sad wood indeed, abandoned by its farming population, devastated by a century of mining activity, and regularly visited by the scourge of forest fires. But on the other hand, a goat is not an animal which one should set free in a convalescent forest. Anyhow, after a few years, for the sake of efficiency and a uniform product, or out of laziness, they usually end up locking the animals in a huge shed and from there produce their farm made goat's cheese. I know of only a few who have continued keeping the herd in the hills. Others start some fancy, rather intensive culture on terraces of onions, potatoes, and different kinds of berries.
During a holiday in Spain I had seen these beautiful little black pigs, grazing under evergreen oaks and I said to myself that they certainly would enjoy rummaging in the dense undergrowth of the steep hills surrounding us, where thrives also the wild boar. Everybody nowadays knows how clean and smart pigs are- the most intelligent of mammals after the dolphins and the apes - and that in many respects they resemble human beings, the reason probably of their discredit in the history of man as a close relative to a jealous God. On the other hand they certainly are no Napoleons or Babes. Nor the poor monstrosities human recklessness has managed to turn them into. And my motto has become: happy meat is healthy meat. Some day we'll be able to discover why.(1)
Our future saviour (pigs in the forest)
These erstwhile devils may yet become our benefactors. Is the pig going to save our forests from destruction, being the only domesticated fourfooter in which wake their demise, in one way or another, doesnít necessarily follow? Knowing the importance of saving and conserving this essential part of our biosphere, it would be irresponsible today not to consider the pigís possible contribution towards it. The pig ploughs, aerates and manures the soil under the trees, the roots of bracken and bramble are part of itís diet. It doesnít destroy the forest like all the other so-called herbivorous animals do.(2) A herd of pigs makes the forest fire-free, without the use of important mechanical means. As a result the wood becomes exploitable, whereas itís fruit will feed man and animal. (This concerns the leafy forest: pines do cover the soil only in poor and cold areas).
I have added a small flock of sheep in the parks where I keep the pigs, since they eat what the pigs leave alone, e.g. heather and gorse; there are also numerous chickens and other fowl following in their tracks during daytime.
Life of the pigs
My pigs grow fat on chestnuts and acorns. Their fat is of excellent quality and disappears towards the end of the spring, when maintenance feeding which costs me money and effort, has been under way for some time. Their growth in size goes on for three to four years, settling for females at 130 kilos on the average, for the boars on 160 to 180 kilos, which means that after one year, their mean weight is at the most 50 kilos, as compared with industrial or farm pigs which have to weigh approximately 100 kilos at 5 months. I often sell weaned piglets to farmers who manage to push them to more then 200 kilos in less than a year, which makes at least these farmers happy. A human child which has approximately the same propensity to growth and fat storage, would have to weigh 100 kilos at an age of seven in order to provoke the same happy feelings in its parents. These animals are obviously over-fed, their whole metabolism is under continuous pressure, their digestive organs become hypertrophied. In the 'how to rear pigs' book, I read that pigs need from 10 to 15 litres of water every day, which caused me some concern because I had a rainwater cistern containing only 5000 litres, so I had to measure their daily intake. To my astonishment even in the midst of the summer when there are no pools, they never drank more than half a litre a day, having at their disposal an automated drinking trough. Maybe the water didn't taste quite right, or maybe a pig leading a normal life does not require such colossal quantities.
The oldest sows on my farm are now 14 years old - we buried sixteen-year old Beatrice the other day, - and are in splendid shape, having a litter, sometimes more, every year, usually in April. They make a huge nest of branches, heather and gorse. When it is very cold, or during a spell of snow, they hide under this blanket. Walking under the trees, one sees from far a little white hillock, a tiny fumarole rising from it and a ferocious grunting if one comes too near. A litter consists of seven to nine piglets. I don't know much about casualties; if they occur, nature has her ways. Buzzards and ravens take care of the little corpses, and I've seen their mothers eating them, reluctantly, in order not to leave rotting meat near the nest, and another mother, whose presence was tolerated, who devoured the discarded piglets with relish. Smart foxes sometimes watch from behind a tree, the first few days, and snatch a little one when the sow has gone for a drink. The pigs anyhow are keen on chasing them, or any other badger.
If a mother pig has been overfed, she gives birth to maybe 13 little ones, in which case I normally lose two or three in the first days, a heavy sow being awkward and the piglets, beyond nine in number, getting split up in two groups, not always on the same side of their mother as she lies down in order to feed them. If they can, they seek out a place on high, dry ground for farrowing, but it has happened that a mother, not the brightest, having dug out a nest, lost her litter during a downpour, when they all drowned. A sad sight, which we will remember.
Killing pigs while watching tails
My first experience in killing was when I assisted a neighbour farmer with the yearly ritual. The pig, a pink one, had to be dragged from its cellar- the traditional and highly recommended abode for a farm-fattened pig- by the four of us, using ropes, yelling and a huge amount of muscular effort, to a kind of upturned, oversized, wooden coffin, where it was laid on its side and tied up, snout and legs, with mastery, resulting from age-old practice and sacred knowledge. (These and other rituals are but a faint echo of a mythical past, when pigs symbolised the earthly nature of man, which had to be sacrificed or, to the contrary, invoked, depending on its devilish or divine essence).(3)
The whole dragging and tying-up session lasted for about a quarter of an hour; all that time the animal resisted and screeched, evidently unwilling to make thus acquaintance with the broad daylight. Yet there was no cruelty in the minds of the men surrounding it. The violence was necessary and the insulting or denigrating remarks were intended to neutralise the horror one feels with respect to the suffering of a fellow living being, the animal becoming a mere object. But even so, it is easier to kill what one hates. Once tied-up the pig was skilfully bled, and everybody was satisfied. The joyful butchering, which would take the whole day, could begin.
Last week I killed Karin, a little sow, very affectionate, but very nervous also and I didn't want to keep her. This is how I proceed: I get up, have my bowl of coffee with goat's milk and a soft boiled wild chicken egg. I then take my .22, a solid knife and a small bucket .The pigs which I want to sell or to kill are in a park near the house during the winter months, so they expect to have some grain in the morning, which makes them available. I empty half a bucket of barley in a thin row on the ground. They start happily eating. I walk around with my gun ready, discover Karin and nudge her to a convenient spot, put the muzzle against her forehead, one inch above the line between her eyes. I have to half kneel, because she is eating. I tell her, I really told her: Well, Karin, you may go now to the Elysian fields for the pigs, and bang, there she lies. I stick the knife into her carotid, and let the blood flow into the bucket, and am content, because it again went without a hitch. The others, since there hasn't been a single alarm signal, go on munching tranquilly their grain. The oldest sow comes to have an inspecting sniff. I call my wife so that she can help me pull Karin, or what remains of her, onto the wheelbarrow and we wheel her to the front of the house, where I spend two hours in the morning sun, skinning her, emptying her, cutting her in half, cleaning the guts under the warm water tap. These bowels have a nice smell, nothing to do with the foetid, nauseating, slime covered bowels we occasionally get at the slaughterhouse, the pungency remaining until they have become dried sausages.
Most of our killing, though, is done at the slaughterhouse, because one needs a stamp in order to be able to sell a pig. A bad moment for them. I have to get them in our van, discovering on one such occasion that a healthy sow can jump a 1.10 meter high barrier without effort, in an elegant movement of muscular strength (that one, of course, I had to kill later). Normally I get them inside the van with kind, sometimes insistent, persuasion. This van has acquired through the years, with the transportation of fish, vegetables and numerous animals a definite and uneradicable fragrancy "sui generis". It is a thirty-kilometre drive, since they shut down the local slaughterhouses, sequel to costly European standardisation. The pigs are worried, apathetic or excited. After a while, some of them will lie down and fake lethargy, others keep standing, trying to retain their balance. At the slaughterhouse I lead them into a concrete pen, where they will remain till early in the morning. I try to avoid bringing a single pig, since they must draw some comfort from each otherís company. They are not exactly stressed, anyway not to the extent of the pigs in other pens, their eyes bulging with fright .We bring animals which have known freedom their whole lives, and depriving them of it means that they must feel annoyed, dispirited or at the most angry. Through this freedom they have kept a tail which is supple and straight like a cow's, with which they can express their emotions. In the abattoir they have either their tail between their legs, or it is twisted or coiled, which is a sign of excitement, but most of the time it is straight, which means they do not excessively worry. All the other pigs having what are said to be "jolly" curly tails, or whatís left of it. Our pigs do curl them when they are excited, eating or fighting, especially when they are young, and this twist becomes a fixed feature when they are stressed too often, for instance when space is lacking. I've noticed that in a small park of about an acre where, during a great part of the year, I keep a boar with two mothers for his (and their) pleasure, half of the piglets which are born there and which after about six months join the herd, never lose the curl in their tail. Consequently there must be something like a pig-space, in the order of one or two acres.
Memories... ít Was a beautiful morning, Sunday, in the spring. Sitting on the tip of a chair on the terrace overlooking the hills in the sun, I thought: if I let go, Iíll be dead in a few minutes. Not a bad way to die. With both my fists I clenched a blood-soaked towel against the back of my thigh. I was waiting for the helicopter to land which would bring me medical assistance. It was silent and serene. A few chickens ran around on the meadow. In the distance the twitter of birds and the occasional grunting of pigs in the forest. There was no pain; I felt tense and peaceful at the same time.
I saw the helicopter landing, people climbing out of it and coming towards me. They started talking to me, I canít remember what was done or said. They enveloped me in an inflatable stretcher.
I heard the doctor say: Mmm, thatís a low six.
I must also have told them to ring F. in order to tell him to come and feed the animals because I wouldnít be there that evening. On my way to the hospital I was aware of the landmarks underneath.
Lying on my belly, that afternoon, I upheld some sort of conversation with the Syrian surgeon who led the medical team behind a green screen, dividing my bottom from my top. I thought that he might not be pleased to handle a patient gored by a boar, but I didnít say as much, considering that many Syrians in France could be Christians. Anyhow, and that pleaded in favour of my first impulse, he warned about the dangerousness of such a wound, the filthyness of swine in general and that there might arise problems of septicaemia or tetanus. Later on we became quite friendly and he was eager to come and visit my place, which he never did.
I was left with two long scars at the back of both thighs, which I didnít refrain from showing whenever bathing in public, and which, added to all the little marks on my legs, left by childhood injuries and the razor sharp tusks of my new friends, must have made quite an impression.
The reason why
Since the blood of a pigbreeder didnít run in my veins, I had to take a clean start. Pigs have to be killed, a case of conscience for a former city dweller. I remember killing my first chicken at the age of forty, the hatchet in a trembling hand, trespassing the moral code of my childhood, but conscious of the fact that I had to do it, because I was a meat-eater and had to assume it. And also, I wanted to live as a farmer -nay, a peasant, a "paysan" as we say -, a way of life, close to our animal reality, which had become dear to me and fundamental in a world having grown too comfortable and virtual. Not a small vindication of my endeavour had always been the lyrical disclosures and praise of countrylife from so many a great thinker and writer, starting with my beloved classical authors. Above the table in my study (or somewhere else) the epigraph from Cicero, from which it appears that, even in his time, an extremely knowledgeable person could be of the opinion that peasants were freer and more independent than kings and that it is a good thing to live in harmony with nature. The constraints this imposes make that peasants are less inclined to believe that the moon is made of green cheese. Not for nothing have they been feared and sometimes even (especially since the industrial revolution), eliminated by bad governments. Today, in our part of the world, it has become possible to live such a life while at the same time being a poet, bookkeeper or astrophysicist.(4)
Ears and nose
Among my first animals some were afflicted with huge ears. I realised that these resulted from human selection in order to create a breed which wouldnít be too enterprising while roaming the village streets in medieval times in order to clear these from the organic rubbish or when feeding on acorns under the guidance of a swineherd. In the beginning of last century the gates of Indian towns, often inhabited by Muslims, were opened at nightfall in order to let a herd of swine enter for the night. In the woods however these Ďblinds" are a serious handicap, impairing their sight and hearing to the extent that these poor animals usually arrive later for dinner than the others when I blow the bugle. Being late they often collide with trees. Sometimes they donít even notice thatís itís feeding time, busy as they are digging the earth and unaware of the movements of the others. As a result they become thin and grumpy. I am trying to breed back upright, although sizeable, ears, with the occasional help of a passing little wild boar.
The pigís main sense however consists of his two widely spaced nostrils, with wich they can spot and pinpoint, in the dark, one single grain of barley at a distance of ten to fifteen centimeters, even under a stone.
Apart from an occasional cold I have never had a diseased pig. They swallow no medicines, nor hormones, nor for that matter any special feed mixtures, for which we impoverish the soil and populations of third-world countries. Accidents happen; they swallow something which they shouldn't, a nail, a too hard a piece of wood. They stop eating and die after a week of painful internal haemorrhage. Still I do not intervene. A year ago, one of my bigger, castrated pigs ceased taking food and after a few days stopped even drinking. A week later when I saw that he became thin and weak, I laid him down in the goat shed near the house on comfortable straw. For some time I watched him, lying still, growing thinner; once or twice daily I turned his great carcass on the other side, until after a month he started to lap with moving little slurps some of the lukewarm goat's milk I offered him, and thereafter slowly recovered. Which reminds me of another astonishing feat a long time ago when one of the young sows disappeared - in those times, the herd still roamed freely over the hills and not in fence-protected parks-, and never showed up so that I finally had given her up, thinking she had met with an accident or fallen a prey to some poacher. Until more than two months later, one evening, while feeding the herd on the top of the hill, I saw a slow-walking, stumbling skeleton approaching on the forest track. Only when she was near, did I recognise her eyes and face. On both sides of her neck she had a deep hairless mark, as if she had been caught in some kind of fork, maybe a split sapling or some kind of big trap, although I hardly can imagine that kind of trap existing outside Africa. I suppose now that she had to shrink until she could free herself from it, and that she had been without food and especially without water, apart from the occasional raindrop maybe, for two and a half months. It is true that pigs don't have sweat glands and therefore need less water and also she might have got stuck on the sunless slope. She is now one of the most beautiful pigs of the herd, and, even before Beatrice's death, a chief. It is thus not amazing that a pig goes for a complete month long fast. The whole herd has been poisoned once, seven pigs died, others I managed to lead into the meadow in front of the house, where they immediately started ravenously grazing for hours on end, as if driven by some mad compulsion. These pigs recovered.
Some time ago, somebody brought me a black sow, which he wanted to be mounted by my boar. She remained for a week or so in a pen with him. Afterwards the boar went back into the herd. Within a few weeks the whole herd was covered in lice, big specific pig lice, and ever since there have been lice, to a lesser extent in the herd, where the individuals get rid of most of them by rubbing against trees, wallowing in the mud, or by running fast. But in the small parks the infestation reaches worrying proportions. It's time then for an oil bath. From some self-sufficiency book I got a recipe which advised pouring sump oil over the pig. I did that once and then thought better of it. I now leave a container at one of the old people's homes in the little town nearby, in which the cook empties the used frying oil, mainly from sunflower seed (the other old people's home has been modernised, and at the same time has acquired stringent internal rules, forbidding the emptying of the hot used oil elsewhere but in the kitchen sink). I have been using this oil for twenty years for the chain lubrication of my chain saws and for wood or leather preservation, although I'm not sure it has the same insect repellent qualities as used engine oil- but since it is cheap and biodegradable I can use plenty of it-, and I use it against the lice. I suppose it could be used against any insect, since it obstructs their tracheae. I pour a generous pint over the pig, from head to tail, and... no more lice. Ten days later I repeat the operation in order to catch the hatchlings. The only problem for me is that it is for the time being a too complicated or too long operation to treat the whole herd. No damage done to the pigs. They adore licking each other clean.
A cock for dinner
Today is a fine June day. Thanks to regular thunderstorms the early summer has burst forth in a jungle of flowers and green. Yesterday night we had an English couple for dinner. He is a writer, who has achieved the remarkable feat of writing six fascinating novels without ever publishing them and is busy writing his seventh. For the occasion we had decided to kill Hit. I don't know why such names are always given to limping cocks, maybe because of their ridiculous soldier-like strutting. There have been a few Naps around as well. But this one deserved special treatment after last winter's heroic fight. I was roused from my sleep in the middle of the night by the loud and continuous screeching of a cock. Poking my head through the window I perceived at some distance a vague shadow, moving on the snow-covered ground. Quickly donning my dressing gown and putting my feet in some shoes, I ran outside. When I got there with my newly acquired powerful flashlight, I saw this cock drawing circles in the snow, dragging after him two martens, who let go when I came nearer and disappeared in the bushes. Well, he survived, with a bloody, featherless tail for some time. But the little predators had also managed to break his leg. This brave animal deserved of course some pampering and to be the subject of our table-talk and another of my wife's culinary feats. We talked also about little Marianne, who had been impregnated by a wild boar, and had just given birth to three piglets, all dead, during a three-day long travail and we hoped that she would survive. She is tiny, less than a year old, has a curly tail, being imported from another farm in order to introduce some new blood, but has never developed well. The disastrous birth might also be the result of crossbreeding with genetically different swine, since there are wild boars with 38 chromosomes, introduced from the north by the hunting societies, as opposed to the 36 chromosomes of our own species, which includes the Iberian pig. Natureís ways are penetrable, after all.
(2) Goats are a disaster. They can manage trees up to 50 years old, if they like the bark and thus make a beneficial forest disapppear in no time. Sheep are less destructive but still theyíll eat shoots up to two or three years old, if they like the leaves. I donít know about cattle, but I suppose their size will allow them to handle even bigger shoots. About camels and donkies I have no information. It has nevertheless gradually dawned upon me that the disappearance of the pig from Middle-Eastern and Northern-African agriculture,- after the first period of settling -, brought upon by the forced nomadisation resulting from unbridled deforestation and overgrazing, and it's prohibition, for various reasons, by reigning casts, might have been a major factor leading to the desertification of these areas and that, inversely, a return to the forest will possibly have to be accompanied by the re-establishment of extensive pig farming. A nice subject maybe for a thesis
(3) Cf. notably Claudine Fabre-Vassas' "The Singular Beast", Columbia University press, 1997. And also the extensive passages about the pig in mythology in Joseph Campbellís volumes about "The Masks of God", Penguin, 1976.
(4) Our own income is for one half provided by the selling of a hundred piglets per year, plus some ten baconers or bigger, the other half being derived from the letting of our holiday guest house. Once the ruins will be rebuilt and the fencing done, I'll be spending only two hours a day on the average working with the animals, apart from the menial maintenance tasks and the harvesting of fruit or hay. My parks cover about 40 hectares and can feed fifteen sows at the most, with their following, for six months per year. In the future the increased production of chestnuts and acorns will make any extra feeding practically superfluous
© Augustin Thyssen 1999-2000