Middle White buying guide
Chris Graham introduces another of our native breeds that’s in desperate need of support, yet which should be nothing but a pleasure to own.
‘Middle White’ may seem like an odd name for a pig to many of you but, in fact, it’s actually perfectly logical, given the breed’s origins.
The Middle White was first recognised in 1852, albeit for somewhat unusual reasons. Pig breeder and weaver, Joseph Tuley, was exhibiting at the Keighley Agricultural Show in West Yorkshire. On show were several of his famous Large White sows along with a number of other pigs, and it was these ‘others’ which caused the consternation.
The problem was that some of them were neither large enough for the Large White class, nor small enough to be eligible for the Small White class. They fell neatly between the two (you can see where this is going already, can’t you?), and yet the judges felt that these pigs displayed enough quality to avoid disqualification. So a committee was summoned and, after much deliberation, the very unusual decision was made to create a third class for what they termed the ‘Middle Breed’. And so it was that the Middle White was born.
The Small White had been developed for showing,
and was created by crossing local pigs with imported Chinese and Siamese stock (from which it inherited the dished face that became a characteristic of the Middle White). Tuley then made a second cross, using a Small White boar on the best females from his Large White herd. The resulting progeny were as heavy as the pure Large White, although in type and lightness of offal and head, they much resembled the best that the Small White had to offer.
The Small White actually became extinct in 1912, but the new Middle White went from strength to strength, as increasing numbers of keepers came to appreciate its eating qualities, early maturing performance and easy management. When the National Pig Breeders Association was founded in 1884, the Middle White – together with the Large White and Tamworth – was one of the three foundation breeds, and its first herd books were published that same year.
The Middle White remained very popular with butchers everywhere, particularly in London where the breed was known as the ‘London porker’.
A The Middle White is characterised by its dished face and short, upturned snout. The head should be quite short overall, with wide set eyes and a broad snout. As these pigs age, their snouts tend to get even shorter.
B Avoid animals with a twisted jaw (poor alignment between upper and lower mandibles). This is regarded as a very serious defect and pigs displaying it shouldn’t be used for breeding.
C The neck should be fairly light, of medium length and be proportionately and evenly set on the shoulders.
D A good underline is very important, with a minimum of 12 teats arranged in straight lines and well-matched pairs.
E Look for good depth to the body; there should be plenty of meat on the loins. Ideally, when viewed from above, the animal should be the same width from front to back. Shoulders that are too heavy are undesirable, and will cause problems; it’ll likely be down on its pasterns rather than up on it toes, as it should be. Middle White boars like this one are a popular cross with commercial sows, to inject a little more flavour.
F Legs need to be straight and fairly short. Avoid animals with an additional toe.
G When buying look for good, rounded hams. Most of the meat on a Middle White is found at the back end, so it’s important that there’s plenty of development and depth here.
H The tail is set high and there should be no depression at its root. It needs to be moderately long but not coarse, and feature an attractive tassel of fine hair.
I Body hair varies in length with strain, and tends to become slightly discoloured with age and exposure to sunlight. Some suggest that animals from the north have thicker coats than those living in the south-west, due to climatic differences.
J The Middle White’s back should be as straight as possible, on both male and females. ‘Roses’ in the hair on the back should be avoided if you intend showing the animal; they will cause an instant disqualification when spotted by the judge.
K The width of the snout should be reflected in a good space between the base of the ears. Ideally, this should be about a hand’s width.
L Middle White ears should be fairly large, pricked, inclined forward and outward, and be fringed with fine hair. Despite afford good forward and peripheral vision, these pigs remain among the most docile and keeper-friendly that you’re likely to find.
What to pay?
In common with most other native breeds, you should expect to pay £50-60 each for weaners intended for the freezer, or about £80 registered youngsters to be grown-on as breeders.
An in-pig gilt can be bought for £250-300. Remember, though, that the Middle White is in very short supply so prospective owners should be resigned to a wait for stock.
Gentle and docile nature
Easy to manage
Hardy and disease resistant
Wonderful meat quality
Straightforward to breed
In real need of support
Consumers especially appreciated the fact that the carcass could be cut into the sort of small joints favoured during the early part of 20th Century. However, the good times weren’t set to last. The outbreak of the Second World War, and the associated meat rationing that ran until 1954, changed the market in ways that would set the tone for years to come.
The shortage of meat forced the industry to concentrate on ‘bacon’ pig; the specialist pork pigs were effectively sidelined from that moment onwards, in commercial terms. So Middle White numbers tumbled and, had it not been for the efforts of a handful of dedicated enthusiasts, the breed could have gone the way of the Small White. But the breed is by no means out of the woods yet, and there’s still a good deal to be done if the Middle Whit’s long-term future is to be assured.
Despite something of a resurgence in more recent times – the Middle White Pig Breeders Club was formed in 1991 with high-profile chef Antony Worrall Thompson as its patron – the breed continues to teeter dangerously on the brink of oblivion.
As reported in this issue the latest bloodline audit that has just been completed by the BPA shows that Middle White numbers have stabilised around 350 sows with some 80 breeders. The decline from the high-water mark of 440 sows in 2010 is disappointing but most breeds have been affected by the economic downturn.
Middle White sows make excellent mothers and can continue breeding right through to eight years old.
We cannot afford to be complacent but we should also keep a sense of perspective. In the aftermath of Foot and Mouth 2001 we only had 200 Middle Whites and 40 years ago there were less than 100 sows in 6 herds. The Middle White remains one of our rarest native breeds and with the added risk that almost a third of the sows are in one large herd. Every new breeder will help to ensure the future safety of the breed and by buying a Middle White you can be part of an on-going successful conservation story.
As is the case with all our native breeds, though, the onus falls on the enthusiast to stabilise the situation. Awareness needs to be raised still further, and the Middle White’s attributes
championed loudly and clearly. On paper, this should be a difficult task, as the breed offers a genuinely attractive ownership proposition for the domestic keeper.
There’s never been any doubt about the Middle White’s meat quality. The efforts of club patron AWT have done much to raise its culinary profile, and he never misses an opportunity to publicly recommend the breed for its eating qualities. These pigs are popular with the Japanese too, where it’s known as the ‘Middle Yorks’, and there’s growing demand for suckling pigs among many of the UK’s ethnic communities. However, it’s at the grass roots of the movement where still more effort is required. There are still far too few
serious Middle White breeders for comfort, and so good stock remains at a premium.
The breed doesn’t appear to enjoy particularly high awareness levels among the general public, which is why articles like this could be so useful.
The Middle White is one of just five ‘white’ native pig breeds we have in the UK. It’s distinctive combination of ‘squashed’ nose, dished face and pricked ears, sets the Middle White apart from all other from all other at first glance. But there’s much more to the breed than a unique appearance.
Those of you wanting to buy your first couple of pigs for the back garden will have to look long and hard to find a breed that betters this one. From and ease of keeping point of view, the Middle White ticks all the boxes. First and foremost it offers a wonderfully docile character. These are remarkably laid-back animals, which makes them well suited to the domestic, family environment. Children love their gentleness, and these characteristics make for a breed that’s easily trained and extremely manageable. Even mature animals remain utterly calm (for the most part), and can be happily walked by children. This inherent calmness makes the Middle White a great breed for those interested in showing senior boars.
Just about the only downside, at a practical level, concerns the breed’s vulnerability to sunburn. Being light-skinned this remains an ever-present risk for Middle Whites that are kept outside. The breed’s natural hair covering varies from strain to strain but, even at its thickest, it’s insufficient to offer much meaningful protection from the sun’s rays. So a decent wallow is an absolute essential if you are contemplating this breed.
These animals will need constant access to mud which they’ll use to protect themselves. But if you can offer some for of shade as well, then so much the better. Natural woodland is obviously the ideal but, failing this, a straightforward field shelter – even a basic one made using straw bales – will offer the animals another useful option for keeping themselves comfortable. However, in terms of practical considerations, that’s just about it!
Tough and hardy
The Middle White is a very straightforward pig to keep. It makes no special demands of its keeper, and its inherently hardy nature will ensure that it displays good resistance to all the common, pig-related ailments. It’s a great outdoor pig, yet is one of the least destructive too. Its short, upturned nose means that it tends to graze rather than root, so animals kept on decent pasture will happily glean part of their diet from the grass.
The Middle White sow makes an excellent mother; calm, attentive and productive. A typical litter will consist of eight or 10 piglets, and a good sow should be capable of producing these numbers up to 10 times in her breeding life. They are very ‘self-sufficient’ mothers too, making them ideal as a first-timer’s breeder; in most cases they really can be left to get on with it. However, it is important to make sure that the environment is right. Any straw used as a bedding material needs to be fresh, clean and spread out in a thin layer.
Coverings that are too thick will hinder the movement of the piglets, increasing the risk of accidental crushing by the mother as she changes position. It’s essential that the youngsters are able to move around freely, and heed their mother’s warnings as she repositions herself. For this reason, a number of experienced breeders opt for wood shavings instead of straw, although this can throw up another potential problem. The compressed nature of the Middle White’s nose means that their animals (especially when young) can be susceptible to dust. So it’s very important to make sure that any shavings used are dust-free if respiratory problems are to be avoided.
Most experienced Middle White breeders will give their piglets an iron supplement injection once they get to three days old. This is thought necessary because the Middle White, in common with most other white breeds, tends to be lacking in this respect. Failure to do this can, at best, inhibit general development and produce a weak animal or, at worst, actually lead to a fatality.
Fertility levels with the Middle White are generally pretty good, although the
weight of the sow can play a big part in this.
There’s a tendency among less experienced keepers to over-feed the sow once the piglets have been weaned.
The mother will quite naturally loose body weight during this two-month process, but if she’s then allowed time to replace too much weight before running with the boar again, the chances of her becoming pregnant will be dramatically reduced. Old hands tend to get the sow ‘in pig’ straight after weaning, then start feeding her up thereafter.
More generally, the issue of body weight is the only other potential cause for concern for would-be keepers. The Middle White does have a propensity to run to fat, so careful weight management is required to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Animals sent to the abattoir shouldn’t be allowed to get to more than 60-65kg to keep the fat content at a manageable level. The trouble is that timing is everything; delaying slaughter for just a matter of a week or two can make a significant and detrimental difference. Fat tends to be put on very quickly at this stage in the growing process, and the layer can rapidly expand from a quarter-inch covering to well over an inch.
So, with this in mind, it's essential to get the feeding regime right. Although the Middle White is generally regarded as a reasonably fast-maturing breed, the piglets can be slow to start eating creep feed properly, sometimes taking upwards of a fortnight to get started. Chopped bread soaked in milk is a good way to get them going. Weaners tend to weigh about 12kg, and take about five months to grow to their ideal slaughter weight.
Of course, as with many of our rarest native breeds, one of the biggest hurdles to overcome with the Middle White is actually finding decent stock in the first place. Their scarcity means that you’re unlikely to find examples entered in general livestock sales and auctions, so you’ll need to pick out more specialised events, such as those organised by the BPA.
As usual, though, we’d recommend tackling the problem by approaching the breed club. This way at least you’ll be guaranteed some expert feedback, and will stand the best chance of buying some quality animals.
Location is likely to play a part in your search too. The north-west of England tends to be the centre of operations these days. While there are a handful of breeders to be found in the West Country, Lancashire and Cheshire really do represent the breed’s heartland now. So, if you live in the south-east of England, or East Anglia, then I’m afraid that you’re probably going to face something of a logistical nightmare when sourcing stock. But there are always ways around this sort of problem, if you’re keen enough; meeting a breeder at a show, for example, can help cut the distances involved.
It’s worth emphasising though that, with breeds as rare as the Middle White, patience will most definitely be required. Pigs like this can’t simply be ordered on a Wednesday and collected at the weekend. It’s the sort of animal that you need to plan and prepare for months in advance. But there seems little doubt that the wait and effort involved will be worth it.
The Middle White offers keepers at all levels of the hobby a thoroughly engaging and immensely likeable character. Whether you’re simply planning to fatten a couple of weaners for the freezer, want to try your hand at breeding, or fancy having a dabble in the show ring, the Middle White can be ideally suited to all purposes. It truly is a versatile and immensely appealing, practical pig.
The genuine article?
If you want to buy a Middle 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 Middle White pigs by name, or Middle 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 Middle White pig contact your breed rep or the Middle White Pig Breeders’ Club.