Hampshire buying guide

Gloucestershire Old Spots buyers guide

It’s a breed that’s stubbornly refused to gain wide acceptance among the UK’s small-scale pig enthusiasts, yet the Hampshire has so much to offer, as Chris Graham explains

There are always going to be winners and losers in the popularity stakes when it comes to favourite breeds. This is true with cattle, chickens, sheep and, of course, pigs. Newcomers to the world of pedigree pig keeping, who are considering buying a couple of weaners to grow-on for the freezer, typically favour a breed with a bit of visual appeal. Failing that, they’ll opt for something that they’ve heard of, or that a family member once used to keep.

So, breeds like the Oxford Sandy & Black, the Tamworth, the Gloucestershire Old Spots and, increasingly nowadays, the Kunekune, are always up there among the top choices. Perhaps understandably, the more technical aspects such as growth rates, temperament and carcass quality, tend to pass many first-time buyers by. Most people simply want a traditional, native breed that’s going to look good in the orchard.

A While the Hampshire may look generally similar to the British Saddleback, one very obvious distinguishing factor is the pricked ears. These should always be well up and of a decent size.

B The Hampshire is predominantly black, making it ideal as an outdoor pig. Apart from the white saddle across the shoulders, some white colouring is also acceptable on the front of the nose.

C It’s important that Hampshires move freely and well, and that they are always ‘up on their feet’. When buying, avoid animals that seem lethargic and disinterested. Short legs should be avoided, too.

D A good underline is important and it should be as straight as possible. While the breed standard calls for a minimum of 12, well-spaced teats, 14 is preferred on a good animal.

E A key part of the Hamsphire’s generally excellent body conformation should be large, well-filled hams like this. This pig is all about carcass quality, and it’s one of the best for delivering fine-textured, lean meat.

F The tail should be set high like this on the Hampshire.

G As with any top-quality meat pig, the Hampshire’s back should be long and flat. When buying potential breeding or show stock, a slight hump in the back is acceptable, but don’t choose animals with any obvious dips in the back.

H The white saddle is the Hampshire’s most obvious feature. Its width can vary considerably without affecting desirability, but it’s essential that it remains ‘clean’ and unbroken. It must also extend down to include the front legs entirely.

What to pay?

Buying Hampshires won’t hold any surprises as far as costs are concerned, prices are on a par with other pedigree pigs. You should expect to pay £250-300 for a good gilt, £350 for a decent boar and the normal £50 or so for weaners. Incidentally, there are now a couple of boars at Deerpark Pedigree Pigs, the AI centre in Northern Ireland. So, those looking for semen for artificial insemination now have ready access to a reliable supplier.

Worth trying?

Pros

  • Excellent meat quality
  • Fast-grower
  • Hardy character
  • Disease-resistant
  • Large litters
  • Great fertility

Cons

  • Feisty nature
  • Commercial associations
  • Not fashionable

Out in the cold?

The danger, of course, is that this leaves the plainer-looking breeds somewhat out in the cold. The likes of the British Landrace, the British Saddleback, the Large White and the Welsh are all suffering as a consequence. You could argue that these are all established breeds that already have their own, enthusiastic followings and, while this is true up to a point, the danger signs are there. Without the influx of new keepers that’s so essential for maintaining healthy demand, the long-term future of these breeds is, at best, doubtful.

The Hampshire is another breed that appears to fall into this ‘all too often neglected’ category. This so-called ‘modern’ breed has been readily available in the UK now for a number of years, yet it’s failed to catch the imagination of domestic keepers, which is a shame as it has so much to offer the small-scale keeper, as we’ll see.

The breed was actually developed in America, using stock that had been exported from the UK – probably through Southampton – in 1832. This link leads some people to regard the Hampshire as a ‘British’ native breed. But, considering the fact that what eventually came back after more than 130 years of careful refinement, was a significantly better animal than then one that had gone out there in the first place, makes this claim seems a little weak, in my view.

From the time of its arrival in the USA until 1890, the pig was popularly referred to there as ‘The Thin Rind’ due, apparently to the abundance of lean meat it produced. Then, at a meeting of American breeders in 1890, it was decided to rename it the Hampshire, thus formerly acknowledging its Wessex roots.

Gloucestershire Old Spots sow and piglets

Although fertility levels are good and litter sizes impressive, breeding the Hampshire will typically produce this sort of variation in colour and marking. 

A Hampshire Breed Society was established at the same time in America and, as a result, herd book-recording can be traced back for more than 100 years.

Productive strengths

The Americans were quick to recognise the productive strengths of the Hampshire’s carcass, and it soon became one of the mainstays of the US commercial pork industry. It was – and still is – used extensively as the sire of cross-bred pigs for American pork and manufacturing markets, as well as in many other countries around the world.

The Hampshire became famous as being the leanest of the North American breeds, and the majority of carcass competitions in North

America are still won by Hampshires and their crosses.

However, it took a long while for the breed to re-appear in the UK, in fact, we had to wait until 1968 for the first Hampshires to be imported by the Animal Breeding Research Organisation (ABRO). That import was a ‘random sample’ of the breed, and those animals that arrived were extensively performance-tested before being released to British breeders.

The next major importation of stock occurred in 1973, when 40 pigs from many different USA bloodlines arrived from Canada (import restrictions prohibited direct imports from the USA at that time).

These animals had been very carefully selected,

Hampshire pig at show

and included a boar that was Grand Champion at the 1972 Toronto Royal Show. Incidentally, this same boar went on to be Breed Champion at the Royal Show, in 1975!

The UK pork industry took little time to appreciate what a winner it now had on its hands, and ‘British Hampshires’ soon became popular worldwide. To illustrate the point, in a 12-month period between August 1978 and August 1979, more than 600 animals were exported to 14 different countries.

Since then, the Hampshire – both pure-bred and crossed with the likes of the British Landrace and Large White – has won many interbreed championships at the Royal Smithfield Show, for both carcasses and live pigs. During the 1980s and ‘90s, several new bloodlines were imported from America, by embryo transfer and boar semen, and the breed’s place in the world of commercial pig production seems assured. Quite simply, the Hampshire is still regarded by many as being the best terminal sire breed for all purposes.

Slow acceptance

However, this glittering success story hasn’t resulted in the establishment of a similarly adoring following at the enthusiast end of the pig-keeping world. Domestic keepers have been slow to accept the Hampshire as a smallholding or back garden-type pig, despite the undoubted advantages it offers to small-scale producers.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why this might be especially as, on paper, the Hampshire is every bit as worthy as the other pedigree breeds. Perhaps the fact that it’s not a truly native breed to the UK puts some potential keepers off, despite its British ancestry. Also, with it remaining such a big player in the commercial sector, there may be a tendency for people to overlook it in favour of breeds with more traditional links to the rural scene, and which are believed to be in greater need of more urgent conservation.

But whatever the reasons are, I can’t help feeling that those who reject the Hampshire as a short-listed contender on their ‘pigs to buy’ list, are missing a significant opportunity. In terms of pure productiveness, this pig really does take some beating. It’s no accident that it remains such an influential breed in the commercial sector; the meat is exceptional. These animals grow quickly to produce carcasses of wonderful quality, with lean, finely textured meat, and plenty of it.

Nevertheless, we are where we are, and the Hampshire remains a relatively ‘acquired taste’ as far as the majority of hobby keepers are concerned. The situation is improving, though, albeit very slowly. At one point, not too long ago, the breed was down to just three domestic herds in the UK but, thankfully, things have looked-up since then. Today there are 20 or so established Hampshire keepers and breeders dotted across the UK.

Attractive looks

The reason for the relatively recent resurgence remains unclear, although the breed’s attractive looks and rapid growth rates must surely be key factors in switching more people on to the practical possibilities that the Hampshire has to offer. Also, the growth in the pig-keeping hobby must play a part, as do the tirelessly enthusiastic, promotional efforts of the British Pig Association.

Like most ‘coloured’ pigs, the Hampshire is a decently hardy animal that’ll take all forms of weather in its stride. It can be kept happily indoors or outside, and the sows will typically produce litters of 12-14 strong, trouble-free piglets.

The leanness of the carcass means that slaughter weights of about 90kg are the norm, and these can be achieved in just 20-22 weeks under the right conditions. What’s more, if needs be, these pigs can be happily be grown on further without excessive fat becoming an issue.

Hampshire pig

At a practical level, the Hampshire is a very active pig; some even regard it as feisty. It’s important to appreciate this fact if you’re considering the breed, and it’s an aspect that may cause some first-time keepers to think twice. The Hampshire can grow into a large and boisterous pig, so might prove a bit of a handful for those lacking experience or confidence. Also, it’s important to realise that pens will need to be strongly fenced to keep these active and inquisitive characters contained.

So, if you’re looking for a placid and docile back garden companion, then perhaps your needs might be better met by one of the more relaxed breeds, such as the Gloucestershire Old Spots. None of this, however, should (or will) be a deterrent to those who already have a bit of pig-keeping experience under their belts. The Hampshire represents a genuinely practical ownership proposition for those seeking an unusual yet very productive breed option. But with the number of UK breeders still relatively limited, purchasing weaners is always likely to involve a bit of effort on the buyer’s part, but that’s rarely a bad thing!

Good mothers

For those interested in breeding with the Hampshire, the news is encouraging, too. Fertility levels are naturally good, and the sows are more than capable of taking care of farrowing themselves; interventions will be needed only very rarely. This really is one of those breeds you can confidently leave to its own devices when it comes to breeding and farrowing.

Also, as you might expect given the Hampshire’s hardy, active nature, these pigs display an all but bulletproof constitution, which ensures they remain extremely resistant to disease; it’s rare for them to succumb to any of the common, pig-related health problems assuming, of course, that husbandry and welfare levels are up to scratch.

In terms of day-to-day living, Hampshires will always establish a ‘pecking order’ within their group. So, if you’re putting any number together in a pen, be prepared for a bit of ‘push and shove’ while the order of seniority gets sorted out.

This aside, there should be very little drama associated with keeping the Hampshire, assuming you’re sensible about the way you look after them and that they’re provided with a decent environment. This is a straightforward breed of pig which, while not fashionable to own, offers those who choose to keep it a fantastically productive option. Meat producers at any level will delight in the quality of the carcass produced, while those wishing to breed or show will find these pigs fulfilling and delightful to be involved with.

There’s rarely much wrong with flying in the face of fashion, assuming you have the character and personality to carry it off. Well, you could argue that exactly the same applies to living with the Hampshire. It’s an involving and engaging pig to be around and one that, because it’s a bit different, may perhaps give you a greater sense of satisfaction than that gained by those who simply follow the crowd!

The genuine article?

If you want to buy a Hampshire pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell Hampshire pigs by name, or Hampshire 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 Hampshire pig contact Guy Kiddy, who can be reached on 01767 650884 or 07808 204363, or by email to: balshampigs@btinternet.com

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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