British Saddleback buying guide

British Saddleback pig buyers guide

Chris Graham spotlights one of our youngest native breeds, discovering that its striking looks, generally good manners and meat potential make it an attractive starter breed.

The British Saddleback, although now firmly established as a native breed in its own right, was created comparatively recently, by amalgamating the Essex and Wessex pig breeds. The result – in the late 1960s – was a pig boasting the most desirable traits from those two breed.

Creating the British Saddleback out of the two existing breeds didn’t sit well with all enthusiasts at the time, but most appreciated the reasons behind the decision. Both the Essex and the Wessex had enjoyed good success on the home market, and abroad.

During the 1940s, for example, the Wessex Saddleback – which originated around the Isle of Purbeck, on the borders between Hampshire and Dorset – grew to become the UK’s second most popular breed, which was no mean feat. Sometimes referred to as the New Forest pig, the Wessex was also instrumental in the creation of the similarly-marked Hampshire breed in America. 

While the Essex never really reached such heights, it was certainly a popular east of England farm breed in its day.

Nevertheless, despite past glories, the pair began to flounder in the face of post-war competition from the more efficient and modern white breeds. So the decision was taken and, in 1967, together with the launch of the QE2, the introduction of the breathalyser and Barclays bank opening the UK’s first cashpoint, the British Saddleback emerged, blinking, into the sunshine of the swinging sixties!

Nowadays, things have calmed down somewhat. The QE2’s been withdrawn from service, there are cashpoints everywhere and the British Saddleback’s roots are a subject that’s largely been consigned to the history books. For most keepers these days, and those thinking about getting involved with the breed for the first time, what’s important is whether or not the breed offers a practical proposition, both in terms of ease of ownership and meat production.

A A good British Saddleback is pretty much defined by the quality of its white saddle. It should be a clear band that includes both forelegs, runs unbroken up over the top of the shoulders and as even a width as possible.

B The ears are a very important feature, too. They should be carried forwards and come together at the front so that they almost touch. However, they mustn’t ever be low enough to obstruct the vision. There’s an increasing trend among some strains of Saddleback being bred now, for the ears to start pricking up, which is something to be avoided when buying.

C Avoid long-snouted examples, and ones where it’s too short or excessively dished. Some white on the nose is permissible.

D Good feet are another essential; the animal should always be well up on its toes which, themselves, should be held close together. Forelegs should both be white, strong, and straight.

E The underline is an essential aspect and should be straight with at least 12, evenly-spaced teats. The best examples with have 14-16, the first pair of which should start well forward on the body.

F Like the fronts, the rear legs must be strong and straight, especially so on a good boar which will require the strength to do its duty! White can occur on the back legs – a throwback to the Essex pig – but this should never extend up above the hock.

G Big hams are an important British Saddleback requirement; they should be full right down to the hock.

H The tail should always be set high. There’s a growing tendency for this to be set lower than it should be these days, and for the whole back end to appear somewhat dropped. This isn’t a good feature.

I A good Saddleback requires good length and depth to the body. Hair should be as smooth and silky as possible. Avoid examples showing coarseness in this respect.

J Long, straight back denotes a good example of the breed. ‘Roses’ in the hair on the back and shoulder are something to be avoided. The presence of these on a show animal will cause it to be disqualified instantly.

What to pay?

Excluding registration costs, expect to pay £20-£60 for 8-12-week-old weaners, £160-£300 for 6-12-month-old maiden gilts, £200-£450 for 11-16-month-old in-pig gilts and £180-£350 for a 6-12-month-old boar.

The record price paid for a British Saddleback boar was 800 guineas!

Worth trying?

Pros

  • Easy to keep
  • Very friendly character
  • Great meat pig
  • Hardy and disease-resistant
  • Attractive looks
  • Sows are great mothers

Cons

  • Elderly males can be feisty
  • Diet needs control
  • Challenging to breed for showing

Thankfully, we can award the British Saddleback a resounding thumbs-up on both counts. What’s more, today’s Brirtish Saddleback makes a wonderful mother, is an excellent and hardy forager, and prioduces piugs than can be slaughtered at any weight, from pork to bacon.   

Stock search

Although the story has been a little up and down in terms of overall boar and sow numbers over the past five or so years, the most recent figures from the BPA’s 2015 bloodline survey point towards a more stabilised situation. This is good news for the breed which, in recent times, has undergone something of a decline. Thankfully, though, the slide appears to have been largely halted, and the future is looking more assured.

So the current situation is relatively buoyant for first-time buyers. With nearly 170 BPA members keeping registered British Saddleback stock across the UK, and a decent proportion of them producing enough stock to have surplus to sell, there shouldn’t be much of a problem for most prospective purchasers.

As always, of course, it’s important to buy the best examples that you can – this applies to any native breed – even if you’re simply planning to rear a couple of weaners for the freezer. The key thing is to support those breeders who are working so hard to produce good quality animals, that meet the required standard in terms of breed characteristics.

British Saddleback sow with piglets

Very friendly and docile, British Saddleback sows are great to be around. Some males, though, can become a little feisty as they mature.

This is why we always recommend starting any search for stock by contacting the breed club (see Saddleback support panel). Dealing with a breeder based on official recommendation is always the best way forward, and should help guarantee that you actually get what you pay for.

In reality, it’s unlikely that an experienced Saddleback producer is going to charge you much more for good animals than you’d pay for sub-standard ones from a less expert supplier. Then, when you factor-in all the additional help and assistance you can expect from

the dedicated, enthusiast seller, the choice to use and experienced breeder becomes a no-brainer.

What’s more, developing a relationship with an expert breeder will open the door to a fantastic source of essential, breed-specific information that’ll make your time with the pigs so much more productive and enjoyable.

Beginner’s choice

So, why would you want to choose a British Saddleback in the first place? Well, the breed has much to commend it to anyone interested in the 

British Saddleback piglet

production of succulent, tasty pork, bacon and sausages. Well-reared animals will provide good amounts of fantastic meat offering decent fat levels to ensure a great end product.

At a practical level, the Saddleback is a straightforward pig to keep, even for the beginner. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s a hardy breed that’ll be happy to endure even the harshest of environments, as long as you can provide it with a clean and dry ark.

The sows make superb mothers; very attentive and good providers of milk. They tackle farrowing without drama and, by and large, can be left to their own devices at this important time. Piglets are good growers and great characters. They’ll quickly find their feet and will be happy to get outside just a few days after birth.

Litter sizes will typically be 12-14 from a healthy young sow, although first litters can sometimes be half this number. Despite their natural attentiveness, you should expect to lose perhaps one or two piglets from each litter due to crushing, unless you’re very lucky. For those with ambitions in the show ring, things can be rather more frustrating. Nowadays there’s typically an enormous variation in quality across each litter, almost regardless of the strain you’re working with. Then again, this is the same for most other breeds, too.

So, those making a concerted effort to adhere to the breed standard, must appreciate that there might only be two or three piglets that’ll be up to scratch in each litter. The rest, of course, will be perfectly good and healthy animals, but will simply be poorly marked, have badly shaped ears or some other characteristic defect that’ll limit their showing potential.

One potential pitfall for newcomers to the breed is that one man’s exhibition reject is another’s potential show champion. So this is why it’s so important to know what you’re buying. If you are serious about setting up a show stock breeding programme producing good quality and carefully selected animals, then it’s essential to get started with the best examples you can find.

While those new to the hobby may well be tempted by the ‘bargains’ on offer at a local livestock sale or auction, these animals won’t always be what they appear. So, if you’re determined to buy from one of these independent outlets, and you want decent animals, then do make sure that you take an experienced advisor with you who is familiar with all the important aspects of the breed.

Feisty males

Although the British Saddleback is known for its generally calm and relaxed temperament, and is regarded as a very docile and friendly breed, it’s worth pointing out that some males can become a little feisty with age. 

British Saddleback sow

Even the most experienced breeders know to be wary of their boars, with some believing that they’re never to be fully trusted, and shouldn’t be approached without a stick and a board.

I’m not suggesting that the males grow into raging bulls; far from it. But, as with other breed, Saddleback boars can be excitable and, once their tusks have developed, torn trousers and cut legs are an ever-present risk if you don’t take the necessary and sensible precautions.

At a day-to-day level, though, the Saddleback is certainly a straightforward breed to live with. There are no special requirements as far as feeding is concerned, although you should be aware that some strains – such as Rosette – do have a tendency to be greedier others. This can be a deciding factor in terms of whether you feed at specific times of the day, or allow an ad lib supply.

As with all native breeds, the British Saddleback requires careful weight management to avoid the laying down of too much fat. While this won’t be a desperate problem if you’re looking to produce a lot of sausages or fatty bacon, it can become more of an issue for keepers after good roasting joints and chops.

As a happy medium you should probably be aiming for a slaughter weight of about 125lb (57kg), which will typically liberate in a 90lb (41kg) carcass for the freezer. A Saddleback in good condition should produce a layer of fat that’s about an inch (2.5cm) thick.

Finally, the hardy nature of this breed means that these pigs aren’t prone to any specific disease-related issues so, assuming their basic health and welfare needs are met and you employ good levels of husbandry, the British Saddleback represents a great ownership option. The breed club offers a top-notch support network, and the striking looks and placid nature make this pig an excellent one with which to get involved with the show scene. How could you really want for more?

The genuine article?

If you want to buy a British Saddleback pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell British Saddleback pigs by name, or British Saddleback pork, then your pigs must be pedigree registered.

Only registered pigs will be included on the Breeds at Risk Register, as part of the national conservation effort to save our native breeds. For advice on buying your British Saddleback pig contact your breed rep or the British Saddleback Pig Breeders’ Club (refer to the British Saddleback breed page for contact details).

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This article was previously published in Practical Pigs magazine. Back issues of the magazine can be purchased from https://shop.kelsey.co.uk/issue/PGG