Oxford Sandy & Black buying guide

Oxford Sandy and Black pig buying guide

Chris Graham introduces a breed that’s both easy on the eye and straightforward for beginners to keep

One of the great things about the traditional pig breeds is the variety of colours available; there’s everything from standard-looking, plain pink ones like the Middle White, to richly-coloured options such as the Duroc. But, as far as patterning and visual impact goes, you’d be hard-pressed to beat the Oxford Sandy & Black.

This most aptly-named of breeds has its origins in the Thames Valley region of the UK and is, well, you’ve guessed it, coloured with a very fetching combination of sandy and black!

Long history

With a recognised history stretching back a couple of hundred years, the Oxford Sandy & Black (OS&B) is one of our older breeds. Renowned geneticist Dr Rex Waters, who also happens to be president of the Oxford Sandy & Black Pig Society, has carried out exhaustive research into putting together a ‘genetic wheel’ illustrating the links between wild and domestic pigs across the world. Among many other fascinating revelations to emerge from this 

work, is the conclusion that the Oxford Sandy & Black pig is a pure breed in its own right.

Records show that the breed was historically popular as a ‘back garden’ pig, in the days when those living in rural England all reared pigs at home as a very necessary source of food. This was at a time when most regions had their favourite breeds of ‘indigenous’ pig that had been honed and refined by local breeders over the generations. Obvious examples still surviving include the Berkshire, the Gloucester Old Spots and the Tamworth; also the Large Black has its roots in Cornwall, while the Middle White was traditionally associated with London.

More recently, though, the OS&B has seen hard times, and even teetered on the brink of extinction within living memory. Towards the end of the 20th century, following the Government’s decision to focus on specific breeds to maximise food production in the years immediately after the Second World War, the appeal of slower-maturing, traditional breeds like the OS&B became tarnished.

A Ears should be fairly long and lopped or semi-lopped, with forward pitch over the face but not so much that they obscure forward vision. Avoid animals with pricked ears. Youngsters will often hold their ears up when excited, but this isn’t usually an issue.

B The head should be moderately long, with a long, straight snout and a slightly dished face. Avoid animals with narrow faces and eyes too closely set.

C Watch out for jowls that are too large, sagging or heavy. This isn’t a desirable feature.

D It’s important that any pig you buy has strong, straight legs, and that it stands well up on its toes in an interested manner.

E Look out for prominent elbows, which is a sign of an animal that’s lacking the necessary width of body.

F A good OS&B should present a deep, straight underline with at least 12 teats (boars must have 14) in evenly-spaced, matched pairs. Animals with sagging teats, an uneven number or irregular spacing between them are best avoided. The presence of an extra nipple between pairs does sometimes occur and, while undesirable, isn’t a major fault.

G Markings and colour are important OS&B issues. The sandy background colour must be even, although it can vary from light beige to fox red. Two-tone effect should be avoided, as should black and white or tri-colour (sandy, black and white). Also note that the black markings need to be randomly-sized blotches, not flecks or spots. Coat should be a good length.

H Keep and eye out for animals with crooked or bent hocks. Front and rear legs need to be straight. Avoid those that appear knock-kneed, and with long or low pasterns.

I Hams should be large and well rounded. Flat, thin hams are undesirable.  

J Tail should be a good length and set high. It should also feature a tassel of fine, white hair.

K The back should be long and predominantly flat, but with a slight arc over the loins. Backs showing a dip and lacking length are undesirable, as is the presence of a ‘rose’ (swirl of hair).

L The neck needs to be moderately long and not too thick. Shortness here is regarded as a fault.

What to pay?

If you’re in the market for good quality OS&B weaners to rear for pork, then you should be expecting to pay about £50-65 each for them.

Registered gilts of the same age (with all the correct paperwork) will cost about £85+, while an in-pig gilt is likely to be priced around the £225 mark.

Worth trying?

Economical pig to keep; good forager

Hardy; deals well with all conditions

Docile, friendly and easy to handle

Prolific and an excellent mother

Looks attractive in any surroundings

Very good pork, bacon and ham

Not inclined to put on excessive fat

Superb carcass, whether crossed or pure

Changing attitudes

The market and attitudes changed. In comparison to the modern hybrid alternatives, these older breeds simply weren’t regarded as viable, so people stopped keeping them and the faster-growing, commercial types took over.

At its lowest point, the overall number of OS&Bs dipped down to a worrying total of about 100 animals. Now, though, thanks to the enthusiastic work of the breed club and the British Pig Association, there are currently about 520 registered sows, which is a good deal more encouraging than things were, even 20 years ago.

The breed certainly seems to be in demand at the moment, although one potential consequence of this popularity is that it can start to tempt people to register pigs that aren’t quite good enough, in terms of the breed standard.

Something similar happened with the Gloucestershire Old Spots a few years ago and, while overall numbers went up and all seemed rosy on the face of it, the actual quality of the stock being produced fell away, which worked against the breed overall. Rectifying this sort of slide takes a concerted effort, so this is something that the OS&B Pig Society is understandably keen to avoid.

There are two elected OS&B breed representative for the BPA, and it’s their job to offer advice and handle all enquiries and concerns from BPA members, including the suitability of pigs for registration. While, in theory, it’s possible for a

Oxford Sandy & Black pedigree pigs

There’s quite a potential for colour difference with the OS&B, as these two illustrate.

breeder to register any animal that he or she produces, if a poor example that fails to meet the official breed standard reaches an exhibition or major sale, it can be excluded.

In extreme cases, the registration of the animal can be cancelled altogether. The Society and the BPA are working hard to discourage indiscriminate breeding. Ultimately, of course, individual breeders will stand or fall based on the quality of stock that they breed.

Buying prospects

There are currently about 250 Oxford Sandy & Black keepers registered with the BPA, and probably a similar number who aren’t. In practice,

those looking to buy decent stock really are best advised to confine their search to the former group.

Most of those keepers not linked with the BPA will be producing pigs for pork, and a good many will be operating under the misguided belief that they are helping with breed preservation by doing so. However, the fact that their animals aren’t birth-notified or registered with the BPA, means that all they’re doing is rearing pigs that look like OS&Bs; without a pedigree there’s no guarantee of an animal’s bloodline, which is the all important factor in terms of breed conservation.

This is a worrying issue affecting our traditional, 

Oxford Sandy and Black pig in shelter

native breeds, and is one that buyers new to the hobby should be particularly aware of. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Many breeders operating outside the registration system have a change of heart when it’s pointed out to them that, once they register their animals as a pedigree herd, pigs that are bred to meet the breed standard can be worth double those that aren’t.

Of course, most keepers new to the hobby won’t be thinking about breeding to begin with and, most often, will simply be looking for two or three weaners to rear for the freezer. Well, the OS&B makes an ideal candidate for this level of operation.

It’s a breed that loves being outside and copes extremely well with most conditions. Given the space, it’ll relish a free-range type of lifestyle and, being a hairy, dark-coloured pig it’s far less susceptible to the discomfort caused by sunburn than many other breeds. However, don’t imagine for a minute that this negates the need for keepers to provide shade and a wallow; as with all breeds, these are both essential requirements.

Keeper’s friend

The breed is also generally known for its friendly, placid nature. Typically, a gilt farrowing for the first time will happily let you into the pen to stroke her and handle the piglets. Such a relaxed attitude certainly isn’t common to all traditional breeds, and represents a big plus point for the Oxford Sandy & Black.

What’s more, the OS&B is a straightforward and easy breed to keep, even for the first-timer. Its no-nonsense attitude should ensure that it’ll bustle through life quite happily assuming, of course, its basic welfare needs are met. The ’20-minute’ rule should be applied when feeding, meaning that the quantities given should be no more than the animals are able to polish-off in this time. If they’re wolfing it down in five minutes flat, then you’re probably not feeding enough, and quantities for the twice-daily feeds will need to be increased.

Another big advantage of the breed, from the inexperienced keeper’s point of view, is that it’s a relatively lean pig, in traditional breed terms. It’s not prone to laying down too much fat if it gets a little bit over-fed, which is often the case with novice keepers. Some other breeds are a lot more sensitive to feed levels, and keepers can be disappointed by the fatty nature of the meat they eventually get back from the abattoir.

However, the standard pig nut-type ration can be happily augmented with windfall apples during the autumn, and these animals will love to graze on fresh grass when it’s available. With this in mind, some keepers treat their stock to fodder beet in the winter, when natural grass is in short supply.

Increasing numbers

For those with an eye on the farrowing ark, there are no major issues surrounding breeding with the OS&B. Fertility levels are typically good, and the piglets produced should have a great zest for life and grow-on strongly. Quality, of course, will vary among the litter. They won’t all be perfect examples and some may appear white and black instead of sandy and black. These examples will grow perfectly well, and to a good size, but just wont be suitable for registration from a breed standard point of view.

The breed, thanks to its hardy constitution, isn’t a recognised sufferer with any of the common, pig-related diseases so there should be little to worry about in this respect. Another advantage of buying from a recommended breeder, though, is that you’ll typically benefit from the animals having been injected against conditions such as erysiphales, and treated against parasitic infestation.

Oxford Sandy & Black sow and piglets

When assessing a potential purchase – and before you get down to the nitty-gritty of checking how well the animal meets the breed standard as detailed elsewhere here – one of the first things you must always consider is whether or not it looks healthy; good, young pigs should always be active and charging around. Walk away if the stock appears lethargic and inactive.

It’s important to check the ‘underline’ too (the number and positioning of the nipples). You can have the best looking sow in the world, but if she only has five working nipples then a number of any litter she may subsequently have will almost certainly starve to death. If you’re buying weaners then pick each one up and check for matched pairs; 14 matched teats is the recommended number, although 12 is usually acceptable.

Best boar?

If you’re looking at a boar for breeding purposes, his teats will need checking too. This may sound an odd thing to have to do, but it’s very important that any male used for breeding has seven, well-matched pair of nipples. If he doesn’t, this deficiency is likely to be passed on to a proportion of his female offspring.

People when buying Oxford Sandy & Blacks tend to look first at the animal’s colour when, in fact, this is a much lower priority. The markings are actually quite a subjective issue. The sandy background colour can actually vary from pale beige to almost fox red and these two extremes, plus every shade in between, are perfectly acceptable. However, the key factor is that the ground colour is a consistent shade. Two-tone effects are to be avoided.

The background colour should feature random black blotches, not flecks or spots. The amount of black overall can vary enormously, too, and good examples should also show a white ‘sock’, a white blaze on the forehead plus a white tip to the tail.

Many regard the Oxford Sandy & Black as just about the ideal ‘starter breed’. It’s combination of manageable character and general hardiness mean that it should be a joy to own, whatever your level of interest. It’s one of the prettier pigs too and will certainly grace any paddock.

For those interested in meat production the news is good too. This breed produces succulent pork, great bacon and wonderful hams. It’s lighter-boned than many other traditional breeds too, meaning that the meat-to-bone ratio is particularly favourable.

But it’s equally worthy as a conservation project. Although overall numbers are well up compared to the ‘dark days’ of the 1950s, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, which is as good a reason as any for taking on the charming, ‘plum pudding’ pig!

The genuine article?

If you want to buy an Oxford Sandy & 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 OS&B pigs by name, or OS&B 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 Oxford Sandy & Black pig contact your breed rep or the Oxford Sandy & Black Pig Breeders’ Club (refer to the Oxford Sandy & Black breed page for contact details).

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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