Large Black buying guide

Large Black pig buying guide

Representing one of the most attractive ownership propositions for the small-scale pig keeper, the Large Black is a breed that far more people should be shouting about, as Chris Graham explains.

With the news full of doom and gloom about the Coronavirus pandemic, and the UK economy facing serious challenges on all fronts, we're certainly living in worrying times. Fears about food shortages, job insecurity and restricted travel appear to be encouraging an increasing number of people to fall back on the comforting security of growing vegetables at home, keeping a few egg-laying hens and rearing two or three pigs to provide a supply delicious pork for the freezer. So, what better time could there be to feature a pig that, apart from being one of our longest-established pedigree breeds, is both easy and very cost-effective to keep?

The Large Black is the UK's only all-black breed, 

and has earned itself a reputation as a fast-maturing yet frugal-eating animal.

It's very hardy, too, and perfectly happy in basic housing in all weathers; it's dark colouring giving it good resistance to the effects of the sun. This impressively down-to-earth combination has traditionally endeared the Large Black to smallholders everywhere.

Also, the breed's propensity to graze with enthusiasm and good effect meant that, in days gone by, it could prosper on a diet of good grass, household scraps and swill (now illegal, of course). Such was this level of practicality that the Large Black became known in some quarters as the 'recession pig'!

A Ears must be big and lopped, and need to extend to at least the tip of the nose. Sometimes you may find examples with ears that are pricked to some degree; these animals are best avoided as this is a sign of undesirable cross-breeding.

B Avoid animals showing too much jowl under the head

C According to the breed standard, the neck should be long and clean. ‘Roses’ in the hair on the neck are acceptable.

D Strong, straight legs are another important feature. Make sure the animal stands well, up on its toes, and isn’t flat-footed. Watch out for splayed front legs and avoid animals showing this defect.

E Ideally it’s good to have 14, evenly-spaced teats, but 12 is acceptable for the breed standard. A straight belly line is another desirable feature.

F The Large Black has always been renowned for the size and fullness of its hams, so check for this and make sure there’s a good roundness and depth here.

G Overall body length is an important issue, albeit more of a tricky aspect for the novice to assess. However, animals that are too long will tend to develop a dip in the back, which leads to weakness and problems with the back legs (sows might not be able to support the boar). Such problems aren't usually visually apparent among weaners, which makes your choice of breeder that much more important.

H These pigs should be completely black and free from rose patterns in its hair on the back. Pigs that have been kept indoors will show a lighter hair colour than those that have lived outdoors. Quality of the hair can be a good indicator as to the quality of the meat underneath. Fine hair tends to be present when the meat is good, and the reverse can be true for animals with undesirable, coarse hair. Good general depth to the body is also important.

What to pay?

With regard to cost, there's good and bad news – depending on whether you're a seller or a buyer. It appears that the rarity of the breed is having no effect on the purchase price of individual animals.

Nine-week-old, freezer-quality weaners can be bought for £50 - £60 each. However, if you have aspirations in the show ring, and want top-quality examples that meet the breed standard, then expect to pay over £70 per animal.

A boar is likely to cost about £250, while you'll need to find £300+ for a good, in-pig gilt.

Worth trying?

  • Docile, friendly character
  • Great temperament with children
  • Top-quality meat producer
  • Affordable to buy and keep
  • Hardy and fast-maturing
  • Unique, all-black colouring
  • Grazer not a digger, if given space
  • In desperate need of support

Historically influential

It's said that this breed is genetically linked to the Old English Hog and that, several hundred years ago, stock imported from China became established in both East Anglia and the West Country. Inter-breeding of these animals with the indigenous pig population, resulted in two regional variations on the black pig theme. Then the bringing together of these two created the Large Black, and a breed society to support it was established in 1889.

Things continued encouragingly for a good few decades, and the Large Black gradually established itself across the UK. Then, by the 1930s, serious exports had started, with breeders in many countries around the world coming to appreciate the value of the Large Black's inherent ability to cope well in all sorts of climate.

The breed was also utilised in the development of a number of today's modern, commercial strains which, ironically, probably contributed to its eventual relegation to an enthusiast's breed. The 1960s saw people deserting the Large Black in droves. Tastes were changing and 'lean' had become the new 'black'! Breeders were demanding bigger litters, faster growth rates and less fat to maximise their profits. These requirements resulted in the Large Black – in common with the UK's other traditional, pedigree breeds – finding itself unable to deliver the goods.

Nonetheless, the Large Black managed to survive and, thankfully,  all of us still have the opportunity to benefit from this breed's many desirable characteristics. However, when I use the word 'survive' here I do so literally,

Large Black sow

These Gold Vase gilts were moved from Scotland to the South of England and bred to different boars as part of the conservation programme.

because the Large Black remains in a vulnerable state, in terms of overall numbers with less than 350 sows in total.

As part of the research for this feature, I visited Martin Snell, who's family have been keeping a top-quality herd of Large Blacks for more than 80 years: Martin's grandfather got his first examples in 1927, and the Snell's Somerset farm hasn't been without them since. The herd produced the breed champion at the prestigious Royal Show no fewer than six times, and pigs from it have won countless other prizes at shows across the UK.

The Large Black is a breed that could be described as steady. They are pretty docile and

not the fastest growing and overall numbers have been steady for the last 20 years.

Some breeds become very popular for a while and then fall away again but the Large Black has remained very stable for the last 20 years. Of course these low numbers mean that the breed has to be carefully managed to ensure that it does not become inbred. Luckily the Large Black breeders have done an excellent job of setting up breeding programmes to ensure that boars and sows are moved around the country. Considering that the breed has 23 different sow lines it is remarkable that they are so well distributed around the country. This means that in spite of the low numbers the genetic health of the breed is in as good a shape any other traditional breed.

Large Black pigs with keeper

Sow numbers are evenly spread as well. The breed is strongest in its South Western heartland and in fact in history it was sometimes known as the Cornwall pig. There is a good spread of breeders throughout England and Wales and new buyers should not have to travel to far to get good stock.  Breeders can also avail themselves of advice on breeding choices though the kinship service which can help with selecting the right boar for the right sow.

New breeders can be sure that they are joining a community dedicated to the conservation of this breed with very active members always willing to offer help and advice.

Of course like all traditional breeds they are not as lean as the modern day commercial pig but that is what give the meat its flavour.

However, in keeping with just about all of our traditional, pedigree breeds, much of the secret to producing good quality Large Black pork comes down to how the animals are fed. If these pigs are given a properly controlled feed ration, and slaughtered at the correct time, then there certainly won't be a problem with carcass quality.

For those who want to produce a more commercial pig the Large Black is an excellent candidate for crossing with one our other native breeds like the Large White. The excellent mothering ability of the Large Black combined with the faster growing Large White is a marriage made in heaven and both are native breeds in need of support.

Practical choice

The breed's relatively low population is all-the-more baffling given the fact that it represents such a genuinely practical and good choice, even for the novice keeper. The Large Black is famed for its docile, friendly character; it truly is a gentle giant.

Its large, lopped ears no doubt assist in this respect, helping to ensure that these pigs are both easy to handle and child-friendly companions to have in a domestic environment. But the breed's hardiness is another very positive, key factor, too. It'll ensure that they'll happily cope with everything that the British climate can throw at them. These pigs are great grass grazers as well; a factor which can help keep feed costs to a minimum (increasingly important for many keepers), and they tend not to be great diggers either, assuming they are given sufficient space.

The genuine article?

If you want to buy a Large Black pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell Large Black pigs by name, or Large Black 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 Large Black pig contact your breed rep or the Large Black Breeders Club (refer to Large Black breed page for contact details).

Large Black pedigree pigs

The meat produced by a well-reared Large Black will be of great quality; very succulent and deliciously tasty. These animals are probably best known as pork producers, but there's certainly no reason why they can't be run on to bacon weight instead. All that's required is a bit of careful food management to guard against over-fattening.

Having said this, Martin Snell does produce the odd bacon pig for the Christmas market – a local butcher requires a good supply of fatty bacon to sell with his turkeys – a recent one of these, which was a year-old sow, had a deadweight of 180kg (nearly 400lb!).

However, a typical Large Black reared as a pork-producer needs to be slaughtered once it reaches a liveweight of around 80kg (175 lb), and this will typically produce a 60kg carcase (130 lb) for butchering into beautifully-textured, flavoursome meat.

So, the Large Black really has very little against it in terms of its suitability as a productive, domestic pig and yet, somewhat strangely, it continues to struggle in numbers terms. With no characteristic disease issues to worry about, a calm and engaging temperament and one of the least destructive habits of any native breed, I can see no reason why people shouldn't be queuing up to keep the Large Black.

Maybe it's simply an awareness issue, in which case, I sincerely hope that this feature acts as a rallying cry to assist this brilliant breed to a bright and sustained future.

Large Black support

The Large Black Pig Breeders Club was founded in 1996 to bring together enthusiasts and promote the breed. Membership is open to all and you don’t need to own a pig to join. Currently there are just over 100 members (a number living overseas) enjoying the benefits of a regular newsletter, an informative website (www.largeblackpigs.co.uk), helpful workshops and the support of like-minded enthusiasts for this rarest of traditional breeds. Membership costs just £15 a year for UK residents (the equivalent of £20 for those living abroad). Further details are available from the secretary, Janice Wood, tel: 01619 764734, e: kenworthyflock@fsmail.net

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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