Large White buying guide
Chris Graham spotlights one of our most influential native breeds that’s all too often overlooked by domestic keepers
As with any pastime where there’s a choice involved, newcomers to pig-keeping tend to be attracted to the more colourful options when it comes to choosing a breed to keep. While this is great news for the likes of the Oxford Sandy & Black, the Tamworth and the Kunekune, it can leave some of the less showy options somewhat sidelined.
Despite offering just the same sort of ownership opportunities, plus all the advantages of top-quality, flavoursome meat, breeds such as the British Landrace, British Lop and the Welsh are these days proving less of a draw to novice keepers seeking their first pigs. Unfortunately, the Large White is
another one that falls into this category; a pig that’s apparently increasingly frequently overlooked simply because it appears too much like a straightforward, commercial breed.
This ‘purchasing neglect’ is something that’s starting to cause concern among those ‘in the know’, with fears mounting that the breed might be teetering on the brink of a slippery slope. The fact that such a possibility is even being mentioned in relation to the Large White is little short of astonishing, given the breed’s former dominance, and continuing influence as breeding stock used in the creation of modern commercial strains.
A The Large White’s long, prick ears should be held slightly forward and fringed with hair. This arrangement ensures unobstructed vision which, in turn, contributes to the breed’s generally active and interested manner.
B Look for a good, clean head with an appreciable dish to the face. The commercial strains tend to have a longer snout with less dishing. This is something to watch for if your pigs are to live outdoors all year.
C Over- or under-shot jaws can occasionally be a problem, as can be a jaw that crosses. All are best avoided when buying, and certainly when breeding.
D Avoid twisted legs, which can affect both front (duck-footed) and back (crossing – very rare nowadays). A good Large White should stand well up on its toes, with Some spring in its pasterns.
E Check the underline for a minimum of 12 teats. Additional well-spaced teats are valuable to rear big litters.
F A decent Large White should present full and well-rounded hams with good depth; in fact, the whole pig should show good body depth.
G Tail needs to be set relatively high on the body.
H Look for a good overall length; this breed should always present long loins. Back should be more or less flat, with a slight slope towards the tail. Avoid any showing dips in the back, especially behind the shoulder. Extra length is important for big litters.
I Avoid rose patterns in the coat; although rare nowadays, they do still occur. Colour should be white all over. Sometimes you may find examples showing the odd black spot (skin pigmentation), typically on the head. These aren’t a desperately serious issue although, if they are found elsewhere on the body, walk away. Sunburn can be an issue to watch for, so the provision of a decent wallow is an absolute essential.
What to pay?
Pricing for the Large White is much about the same as it is for most native breeds. It remains reasonably easy to buy decent Large White stock, and you should expect to pay a minimum of £55 for a weaner.
Breeding gilts should be available for £250-300, while an in-pig gilt is likely to cost £400.
Friendly and docile
Hardy and adaptable
Ideal for crossbreeding
Needs a breed club
At a more practical level, this is even more of a shame because potential keepers are missing out on so much by rejecting the Large White on what, in many cases, amounts to little more than its appearance. The reality is that this breed’s major selling points make it one of the most suited to the domestic environment.
The Large White grows rapidly to an impressive size, yet produces a beautifully lean carcass; both important factors either overlooked or unappreciated by potential owners. In addition, the breed offers a great temperament, produces large litters of strong piglets and the sows make wonderful and caring mothers. And yet we are where we are, and the Large White is now in need of a concerted effort if more serious problems are to be avoided in the not-too-distant future.
Regarded as a ‘modern’ pig, the Large White was derived from the old Yorkshire breed (it’s still called this in America), and first appeared in 1868. It was one of the founder breeds of the National Pig Breeders’ Association (now the BPA), and the first herdbook was published in 1884.
In common with many other of our native breeds, the Large White’s specific roots are largely unknown, although it’s been suggested that it was the crossing of the Yorkshire breed with the Cumberland, Leicestershire, Middle and Small White breeds, that led to the emergence of the new breed.
Whatever the exact breeding mix, though, it worked; the Large White was an almost instant success. In less than 30 years there were examples of the breed being exported literally all over the world. By the turn of the century it could be found in Argentina, Australia, Canada and Russia, as well as in most other countries in mainland Europe.
The docile and friendly behaviour extends to the keeper as well as pen mates.
The breed’s influence in the development of the modern, hybrid strains of commercial pig really can’t be under-estimated; it has been – and continues to be – at the very core of the pork industry, and virtually any joint that you buy in a supermarket today is likely to have some degree of Large White in its genetic make-up.
Of course, you’d be wrong to form the impression that a pure-bred Large White is going to produce the sort of tasteless and dry joint of meat that we typically associate with the shop-bought product these days. In common with all other traditional UK breeds, good strains of this one will liberate pork that’s well textured, succulent and provides enough fat to ensure excellent flavour as well as delicious crackling.
The breed enjoyed its heyday in the UK during
the 1950s, when it absolutely dominated the market. In 1954, for example, the number of licensed boars recorded was 16,751, which represented 76% of the total male pig population. Things were nearly as one-sided with the sows, too; in the same year there were 25,289 registered females, making up nearly two-thirds of the UK’s total. To put this in perspective, second place in that same year went to the Landrace, with just 2,032 boars and 1,719 sows. The corresponding figures for the Tamworth were 72 and 163!
Nowadays, though, the situation isn’t so rosy and, although the Large White isn’t in such desperate need of assistance as several of our other native UK breeds, it remains a cause for concern. The BPA’s 2016 bloodline survey highlighted the situation, concluding that the Large White is a ‘breed at risk’. With just 77 registered boars and 366 sows remaining, things are a million miles from how they were
during those golden, post-war decades.
Out of the 50 or so BPA members in the UK now keeping registered Large Whites, only three of them have sizable herds, still working as viable, commercial operations. Of the rest, nearly half are small and the remainder fall somewhere in between. So you can see that it wouldn’t take much of a downturn in the breed’s fortunes to trigger some serious fears.
It’s for this reason that enthusiasts of the Large White, like Bedfordshire-based Guy Kiddy, are already working hard to promote the breed’s many virtues to a whole new group of potential keepers. He’s convinced that if more people simply gave the breed a chance, then they’d be hooked. While it might not look as pretty in a paddock as some of our other native breeds, it does everything else that a modern keeper could wish for, extremely well.
At a practical level, the Large White is a rugged and adaptable breed that’ll be happy living a completely outdoor lifestyle. However, there's a proviso to this. The out- and-out commercial strains are not as resistant to cold weather as the standard-bred Large White. They are noticeably leaner than the traditional type, and it’s this lack of fat that leads to their vulnerability in low temperatures, and means that they need to be kept indoors during the winter months.
For this reason, it’s important that buyers are always sure about what they’re getting. Of course, without a dedicated breed club providing specialist support, the Large White falls under the protective umbrella of the BPA, and it’s through this organisation that potential owners would be best advised to locate their suppliers. If your pig-keeping/buying experience is limited, then it’s vital that you deal with a breeder who is going to be sympathetic towards your situation, and provide you with the right sort of animals for your needs.
Friendly and alert
Beyond this, however, there really shouldn’t be anything else to worry about for the Large White keeper, at a day-to-day level. These pigs are tough, durable and very adaptable to virtually any situation. They are friendly, intelligent and always alert. Prospective owners need have no fear that the breed’s pricked ears represent a sign of trouble. The Large White is a relaxed, docile animal that makes an excellent family pig for the domestic environment. What’s more, it’s not a pig that has to be worked at to ensure this good level of temperament and behaviour; they just seem to be naturally unassuming, despite their potentially great size.
Another big advantage, especially from an inexperienced beginner’s point of view, is that the Large White isn't prone to running to fat in the same way that a number of the other native breeds can do. Despite a relatively rapid growth rate, these pigs can be taken up to impressively high slaughter weights without fear of excessive fat layers being laid down; they’ll happily run up to 120kg
without a problem.
As a breeding prospect, the Large White is a good bet, too. It’s common for a sow to continue as a very productive breeder for up to seven years. The piglets can be weaned at five weeks, after which the sow can be put back to the boar just five days later, if required. Litter sizes are generally good, with 10 or 11 being a typical return. Later in life this can either fall away or increase, neither of which is ideal.
By and large, the sows are very self-sufficient when it comes to farrowing, and will happily get on with the job without drama or the need for human intervention. What’s more, the piglets should be strong, good growers and enthusiastic feeders.
The Large White is known as an active pig and, in common with most other prick-eared breeds, it’s a great digger. As a consequence they make very effective rough-ground clearers, and their generally rugged nature ensures that these pigs aren’t characteristically vulnerable to any of the obvious, pig-related problems.
So, on the face of it, there really isn’t a significant downside to the Large White. While the breed may be a touch too plain-looking for some tastes, those keepers seeking a straightforward animal that will produce plenty of delicious meat in a no-nonsense manner, should certainly give the Large White serious consideration. It’s a great breed to be around, and can work really well as a first-timer’s pig. What’s more, the fact that the Large White stays lean and doesn’t exhibit the tendency to run to fat, can be a real advantage when the pigs are being kept in the hands of less-experienced keepers.
Looking at the bigger picture, there would be no better time than now to act, as far as this breed is concerned. Regrettably it’s already reached ‘at risk’ status, and there’s no telling how quickly the situation could worsen further. It would be such a shame to see this productive, engaging and genetically significant breed slump any further.
The genuine article?
If you want to buy a Large White 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 White pigs by name, or Large White 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 White pig contact your breed reps (refer to the Large White breed page for contact details).