Gloucestershire Old Spots buying guide
Chris Graham introduces one of our most popular native pig breeds; one that makes sense whichever way you look at it!
Find yourself in any decent restaurant or gastro pub with pork on the menu and, the chances are that it'll be Gloucestershire Old Spots meat. This breed really has caught the imagination of chefs across the land, making it the native breed of choice for many of them; its succulent and tasty meat doesn't disappoint.
But it's not only professional cooks who are learning to appreciate all that this traditional British breed of pig has to offer, because the Gloucestershire Old Spots is currently enjoying a significant period of widespread popularity. It's actually now the UK's most numerous native breed, according to the British Pig Association's latest conservation survey results. Encouraging though this may sound, though, it's nevertheless worth noting that, despite its chart-topping position, there are still fewer than 1,650 registered sows and just under 300 boars surviving, so it's clearly no time for complacency.
However, perhaps one of the useful spin-offs from the breed's current ‘flavour of the month' status, is that its many virtues are these days championed by a number of famous owners, including Adam Hanson from the BBC's Countryfile, Liz Hurley, Blur's Alex James and everyone's favourite celebrity farmer, Jimmy Doherty.
Of course, the best news of all is that the Gloucestershire Old Spots represents a genuinely great ownership proposition that, thanks to the relative buoyancy in numbers, is available to us all. Owning and rearing these pigs at home is easily within the grasp of anyone with a bit of land to spare, and the resources necessary to offer a good home for five or six months.
This famous old breed originated in the Berkeley Vale, on the southern shores of the river Severn in
A The GOS's face needs to be slightly dished and the head itself medium-sized.
B The coat should be silky but not curly, and the presence of ‘roses', mane bristles or a sandy colour are all undesirable. The former will result in a disqualification if found on a show pig.
C Shoulders should be fine but not raised, leading into a long and level back. It's important to avoid animals showing any sort of dip in the bodyline, immediately behind the shoulders. Strength in the back is an important requirement for breeding pigs.
D Markings are an important aspect of the Gloucestershire Old Spots. The breed standard calls for not less than one clean, decisive spot of black hair on black skin and adds that black should not predominate. A few years ago there was a problem with excessive spotting and so the standard was modified to help counter this. The degree of spotting doesn't follow parentage, so two good parents aren't guaranteed to produce well-marked offspring.
E The GOS is famed for the quality of its meat. As such, hams should be large and well-filled right down to the hock.
F Legs are very important. They must be straight and strong and good examples will be active and stand up on their toes. Avoid pigs with crooked-looking legs.
G The underline should be as straight as possible, featuring a minimum of 14, well-spaced teats that start well forward.
H The sides on a good Gloucestershire Old Spots must be deep, presenting straight bottom line. The belly and flank should be full and thick, with a well-filled line from ribs to the hams.
I The neck should be of medium length, with not too much jowl present.
J It's important that the tip of the ears finish very close – but not extending beyond – the tip of the nose. It's not a good sign if the ears fall away to the sides of the head.
What to pay?
The cost of Gloucestershire Old Spots pork weaners is on a par with most native breeds, so expect to pay £40-70 each. A maiden gilt – ready for her first service £180 at nine months old – will cost about £180. However, if you want breeding gilts, then you should expect to pay £200-£450 per animal, depending on the quality. Boars will cost £180-£350. These prices exclude registration fees.
- Docile and friendly
- Great first-timer's pig
- Hardy and weather-resistant
- Sows make great mothers
- Superb pork and bacon
- Sunburn risk
Gloucestershire, and was frequently kept in the cider and perry pear orchards of the area, and on dairy farms. Both windfall fruit and waste from the dairies was used to supplement a predominantly grazed diet in the early days.
Local folklore suggests that the breed's distinctive black spots were originally caused by the bruising effects of falling fruit, while alternative names used for it over the years have included ‘Gloster Spot' and ‘Old Spot'. In addition, the breed is also known as the orchard pig and the cottager's pig.
Lost in time
Unfortunately, there's very little documentary evidence to support the breed's early development, although Victorian writers, such as William Youatt in The Pig and HD Richardson in The Pig – its origins and varieties, suggest that the Gloucestershire Old Spots (GOS) was derived from crossing the original Gloucestershire pig – a large, off-white variety with wattles hanging from its neck – with the unimproved Berkshire, that was then a sandy-coloured, prick-eared pig with spots.
The first pedigree records for pigs began in 1885, much later than for cattle or sheep because the pig was a peasant's animal; a scavenger that was never highly regarded. However, no other pedigree, spotted breed was recorded before 1913, so today's GOS is the oldest such breed in the world!
Of course, it's not all been plain sailing for the GOS. Despite the breed's much-appreciated docility and
Gloucestershire Old Spots sows make wonderful, attentive mothers. Litter sizes aren't the biggest, tending to average out at about eight.
ease of management, it's not always been seen as the most popular choice. During its 100-year history, though, there have been a number of pretty serious blips when overall numbers have dipped alarmingly. For whatever reason, the breed slipped out of fashion.
There were worrying low points in the 1920s and ‘40s and then again during the 1960s. In the most recent of these, some 80% of the world's surviving Gloucestershire Old Spots were owned by just one keeper, George Styles, who had 120 sows. This represented a very precarious
situation for the breed but, thankfully, Mr Styles was a knowledgeable operator who understood the subtleties of breeding successfully from restricted bloodlines.
The Gloucestershire Old Spots Pig Breeders' Club was formed 21 years ago, and the fortunes of the breed have improved steadily since then. Today, according to the BPA's most up-to-date conservation survey results, there are 1,627 registered sows (nearly 200 up on the previous year), 299 boars and 365 keepers across the UK.
This means that the situation for those wanting to buy decent stock is very encouraging at the moment. There's a good network of breeders spread across the country, and details of the nearest to you will be readily available from the club or via the BPA.
As always, though, it's best to begin your search by contacting a recognised breeder which, in the case of the GOS, shouldn't pose much of a problem. Unlike some other native breeds where sourcing conveniently located and decent quality stock can be a problem, the Gloucester should be a relatively easy pig to track down. This isn't to say, of course, that you won't come across some ropey examples at sales and auctions, so buyers embarking on that route must be on their guard.
Given that it costs just as much to feed and rear a bad example as it does a good one, you really ought to put maximum effort into finding the best animals you can. Even if you aren't intending to breed or show, buying good quality stock is an important thing to do as it helps maintain the demand for animals that have been bred to standard. As with all our native breeds, it's essential that the established breeders continue with their important work but, in most cases, they can only afford to do this is people continue to buy their sale stock.
I'm sure that a good proportion of you reading this will be considering the purchase of your first pigs and, to be honest, the Gloucestershire Old Spots really does represent one of the best options around; it really does have all the important attributes needed to help ease new keepers into the hobby in a gentle and stress-free way.
At the heart of the breed's desirability is its quiet and relaxed character. There can be few more docile pigs than the Gloucestershire Old Spots and, while the large, lopped ears play a big part in this, these animals also benefit from an inherent calm and laid-back attitude to life. Limited forward vision means that these pigs are never likely to spot something interesting in the distance, so containment should be straightforward.
A double strand of electrified wire will be sufficient to contain two or three porkers, assuming that the animals have been adequately trained. Weaners should be housed in a smaller, conventionally-fenced training pen for a week or so before being given the freedom of their larger enclosure. This should be bounded by a physical barrier (metal sheet hurdles are ideal) beyond the electrified strands so that, having taken a zap from the energiser, the youngsters are discouraged from pushing on forwards through the wires to freedom. Once they've learned to be wary of the electrification then there will be no need for the fencing anymore, and the wires should be all that's required for effective containment.
The good news continues from a medical point of view, too. The GOS isn't known as a pig that suffers from any of the most common porcine ailments so, assuming your animals are able to enjoy suitable surroundings – and your husbandry standards are up to scratch – then visits from the vet should be almost unheard of.
Just about the only welfare-related factor to be aware of is the risk of sunburn.
Being an essentially white pig, the GOS is likely to suffer from burning to the ears, neck, back and flanks during spells of hot weather. This makes it especially important – as well as ensuring a supply of fresh drinking water is always available – to provide a large and constantly wet wallow that'll enable the animals to apply their own, muddy sun-block as required.
Another practical aspect to be aware of concerns feeding. The Gloucestershire Old Spots is a breed that simply can't be rushed in this respect. If you try to force the issue by over-feeding, they'll simply put on fat. For this reason, it's best not to feed pig nuts on an ad lib basis; instead, food intake should be controlled by providing a ration of nuts twice a day, based on the ‘pound a day for every month of age' rule. Working on this basis will help keep your animals healthy and growing at the optimum rate.
Most new keepers will be rearing two or three GOS weaners for the freezer and, for the best results, you should aim to reach a slaughter weight of about 80kg. This will produce a carcass weighing 50-60kg, and the levels of fat should be just about spot-on. Established GOS keepers and breeders will tell you that the meat from these pigs is the most succulent and tasty that you'll find and, judging by its popularity among professional chefs, it appears that they could have a strong argument in this respect.
If breeding with the GOS is one of your aims, then rest assured that it's a relatively straightforward process at the simplest level. Fertility is generally good and the sows make great and attentive mothers. Healthy pairings will produce a typical litter size of eight piglets, but this can rise to 10 or 11 under ideal conditions.
All in all, then, the Gloucestershire Old Spots makes a lot of sense for keepers are all levels of the hobby. Owners with young families will find it a delight to be around in the domestic environment, while those with ambitions in the show ring can enter a pig that's easy to handle and completely predictable. For those looking for nothing more than a freezer-full of delicious pork, then the GOS will deliver in that respect too. It really is a most adaptable breed that can be tailored to your own, specific needs with ease, and one that will reward conscientious keepers with a thoroughly fulfilling ownership experience.
The genuine article?
If you want to buy a Gloucestershire Old Spots pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it's just another pig. If you want to sell GOS pigs by name, or GOS 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 Gloucestershire Old Spots pig contact your breed rep or the Gloucestershire Old Spots Pig Breeders’ Club.