Tamworth buying guide
Chris Graham focuses on this attractive and productive Midlands breed; one that can still trace its ancestry back to the old English forest pig
Many of you may recall the couple of pigs that made the national news headlines back in the late 1990s, after escaping from an abattoir in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. These were Tamworths, and they quickly caught the public’s imagination during the week they spent ‘on the run’.
Christened Butch and Sundance by the tabloids, the ‘Tamworth Two’ attracted international coverage as they reportedly swam the river Avon, scrambled their way through a number of residential gardens, and then settled in a dense woodland thicket near
Tetbury Hill, on the north of the town. The five-month-old brother and sister were eventually recaptured, by which time the Daily Mail had stepped in and bought the pigs to save them from slaughter, by popular demand.
The pigs were transferred to the Rare Breeds Centre at Woodchurch, Kent, where they were supported by the paper until they eventually died of natural causes. This whole story neatly encapsulates the
A The Tamworth is a prick-eared breed and this is a factor that contributes to its active, busy character. Ears should be quite large, inclined slightly forwards and fringed with fine hair.
B A long snout and slightly dished face are Tamworth characteristics. This pig is a great digger and rooter, and can be particularly effective at clearing woodland.
C Legs are important on the Tamworth; both their positioning and their strength. These pigs should stand well up on their toes, too. Avoid buying down-at-heel examples.
D The Tamworth’s colouring makes it just about the ideal combination; dark enough to offer resistance against sunburn, but no so dark that the heat of the summer becomes a problem. Hair is moulted-out annually.
E A straight underline with a minimum of 12, well-spaced teats is an important requirement of standard-bred animals. The female Tamworth makes an excellent mother, producing plenty of milk, although litters are smaller than you might expect.
F Good hams should be assured on the Tamworth, so look for decent size, shape and firmness here.
G The tail will often be held straight, but should be mounted high on the body and feature a large, obvious tassel.
H The back should be long and as flat as possible. A slight hump is acceptable, but avoid animals displaying any concave shape, as this can indicate an inherent weakness.
I Generally, the body should be long and relatively deep, as befitting any decent bacon-producing pig.
What to pay?
Buying stock from a recognised Tamworth breeder isn’t always going to be a speedy process; it’s important to appreciate the fact that these pigs don’t represent an ‘off the shelf’ item, and a wait of several months could be necessary.
Good weaners are likely to cost between £50 and £75, while for a decent, standard-bred pedigree pig of show quality, you’ll have to pay £300-400.
Great pork and bacon
Easy to look after
A hardy, no-nonsense breed
Happy outside all year
Well worth conserving
Tricky to train
Tamworth as a breed. These pigs brim with character. They are entertaining, hardy and self-contained animals that love nothing more than to forage and root. A woodland lifestyle suits them down to the ground, yet they tend not to have an aggressive bone in their bodies.
But what’s really interesting about the Tamworth is its genetic background; it’s thought to be the closest living relative of the indigenous, British forest pig, which must surely explain its penchant for crafty survival and general hardiness. Of course, the Tamworth we have today isn’t the same as it was in the old days, nor does it bear much resemblance to the Old English pig either. Nevertheless, there is a link that’s not been diluted by the crossing of imported breeds from China and Asia, and that leaves the Tamworth uniquely connected to the past.
With documented roots that stretch back at least 200 years, and an unwritten history extending back further still, there are plenty of stories surrounding the ‘modern’ Tamworth and its development into the fine animal we have today.
There are suggestions that it and the Berkshire were closely linked in the early days, with both regional breeds sporting black patches on a reddish ground colour. But, while the Berkshire was subject to ‘improvement’ from the influx of Asiatic blood (and lost its redness), it seems that the Tamworth – then often referred to as the ‘Grizzly’ – wasn’t deemed worthy of such benefit, so was passed over in this respect.
Interested and alert; the signs of a good Tamworth weaner.
It was during the 1870s that the breed started developing a reputation as a useful bacon pig. Prior to that it had been kept across the Midlands as a woodland herd animal. Even at that stage, though, the long-legged Tamworth had a bit of a reputation as an escape artist (an excellent jumper!) and was also regarded by some as being far too prolific.
Its inherent leanness was to prove a bit of a disadvantage too, and by the mid-1800s, it was quite a popular practice to cross the Tamworth with the ‘re-modelled’ Berkshire. The resultant offspring were evidently better eaters and
matured more quickly (thanks to the Berkshire’s newly-introduced Asian underpinnings).
These cross-breeds were described at the time as being the most profitable bacon pigs in the country. However, breeders persevering with second-generation litters were somewhat disappointed with the complete hotchpotch of varying sizes and colours typically produced.
The Tamworth earned its own breed class at the Birmingham Show in 1876, although there was evidently still some resistance. Northern breeders seeing examples shown at the 1883 Royal Show in York, openly mocked the Tamworth as nothing but a ‘wild’ pig. However, the breed’s rugged
side was to stand it in good stead, and it proved to be a popular export to Canada and – to a lesser extent – America.
As the turn of the century approached, so the Tamworth’s colour faded somewhat (the presence of black spotting had been largely eliminated by then). The skin was flesh-coloured and this, plus the sandy-coloured hair, led some to conclude that an undesirable outcross with a lighter breed may have occurred. In fact, this is something that did happen later, with the introduction of Large White blood to help keep the skin pale.
The 1920s saw the Tamworth’s heyday – Sir Oswald Mosley was a keeper during the early part of this decade – but overall numbers started to tumble soon after this. By the Second World War, although the characteristically long-snouted Tamworth remained prolific (litters of 10-15 piglets were still commonplace), the breed was fading fast.
The dramatically increased, post-war requirement for faster-growing and more cost-effective commercial breeds delivered another significant blow, not helped by increased consumer demand for leaner pork. The situation probably reached an all-time low during the 1970s, when there were reportedly fewer that 20 Tamworth boars left in the UK, and previously exported bloodlines from Australia had to be brought back to rescue the situation.
Thankfully, things are more encouraging now, although, if you’ll excuse the pun, the breed isn’t quite out of the woods yet. While the breed club has done much to further the Tamworth’s cause among enthusiast keepers, the Rare Breed Survival Trust still classifies it as ‘vulnerable’. What’s more, the British Pig Association’s 2016 survey revealed just 103 people keeping registered Tamworth pigs, a total of 436 registered sows and 92 boars.
So this certainly isn’t a time for complacency, which is why the Tamworth Breeders’ Club continues to work hard promoting the many benefits of the breed, and raising awareness. But, as with many other traditional breeds, there’s a tendency for too many of the good, standard-bred Tamworths to be in the hands of too few keepers. Enthusiastic and passionate though these individuals undoubtedly are, the long-term survival of the breed really requires a greater spread of ownership, and a better standard of breeding among the less experienced owners.
Tamworths are such appealing pigs that it’s very easy to become too attached to them; something that tends to be more of an issue with newcomers to the hobby and rearing pigs for the freezer. This then often leads to the decision not to slaughter, but to breed instead, which can prove counter productive as far as quality is concerned.
It’s the all-round competence and durability that make the Tamworth such an attractive proposition; well, that and the quality of the meat produced. As far as taste and texture are concerned, the Tamworth is up there with the very best. In fact, an independent study at Bristol University found that it came top in the carefully controlled taste tests run to compare the various traditional breeds.
Obviously, though, taste is a very subjective issue; one person’s ‘heaven on a plate’ can be another’s ‘ready meal experience’. However, it has been suggested to me that a large part of the Tamworth’s secret lies in the quality of its fat. It seems to have a consistency unlike most others, and the ability to impart flavour that many find noticeably more pleasing than the alternatives. Perhaps this is just another benefit of the breed’s essentially undiluted genetic links with the free-running, old English forest pig.
The good news, if this tasty prospect has already set you're your mouth watering, is that the Tamworth – despite its unjustified reputation for being far from an ideal starter breed – is, in fact, a great pig to keep. It presents a wonderful, friendly character and so can be ideal in a family environment. Even when reared on a larger scale, these pigs remain easy to handle although, as always, much depends on the amount of time and effort put in by the keeper.
The Tamworth is an alert breed so it can be more of a challenge to train for the show ring than many of the lop-eared pigs. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise if you’ve done your homework. These are lively animals with real spirit. They love to be active and will be interested in everything. For this reason, it’s worth ensuring that pen fencing is up to scratch; as with the Tamworth Two, escapees can be a bit of a struggle to round up!
Another likely consequence of the Tamworth’s ‘wild’ roots is the fact that it really is a no-nonsense breed, from a husbandry point of view.
The passing seasons really are of little consequence to this pig. Many owners keep their Tamworths out all year round without a second thought; it’s only if the weather becomes really severe that they may require some assistance. Generally speaking, though, these pigs just get on with life.
The sows make wonderful mothers; protective and caring. They’ll happily farrow in outdoor arks, and will do so reliably and without drama or human intervention. The one thing to bear in mind, however, is that litters these days aren’t as large as they used to be. Whether this is a consequence of the inevitable inbreeding that occurred during the ‘crisis years’ of the 1970s, isn’t entirely clear, but today it’s unlikely that even the best sow will produce no more than seven or eight piglets. What’s more, as the females age, farrowing becomes more of a long-winded struggle, so mortality rates tend to increase, reducing the overall number of young further.
However, those piglets that are born will typically grow well and strongly. Although the breed remains a relatively slow-maturer, these pigs are strong and hardy; disease resistance is good, so problems for keepers operating a well set-up rearing environment should be rare.
Despite the relatively low numbers around, and the Tamworth’s RBST ‘vulnerable’ classification, the breed remains a relatively easy one to buy. As always, the breed club should be your first port of call, and will represent the best way of securing decent, standard-bred stock. It’s always important to buy the best examples you can, not only for of your own satisfaction at owning a valuable piece of porcine history, but for the overall good of the breed, too. It’s vital that the demand for standard-bred, birth-registered Tamworths is maintained so, even if you’re simply looking for a couple of weaners to grow-on for the freezer, always try to buy from an established and recognised breeder.
When buying Tamworths, your first, general assessment should be based on the animal’s overall appearance and manner. Tamworths should be inquisitive, active and quick to come forward. Animals that appear lethargic or obviously under-sized are best avoided.
Then, on closer inspection, check for good, strong-looking legs. These should be as straight as possible, and well positioned at the four corners of the body. In common with other breeds, a good Tamworth should be ‘up on its toes’; those which aren’t, or are displaying a knock-kneed look, should be rejected. Also, it’s important to check the underline. You’re looking for at least 12 sound, evenly-spaced and well-placed teats, starting well forward. Elsewhere, other Tamworth essentials include a slightly dished face, a long, straight back and well-developed, good-sized hams. As far as the back is concerned, avoid any that look concave (a sign of potential weakness).
Feeding is always a key aspect for anyone keeping rare breed pigs, and the Tamworth is as sensitive as any other in this respect. The big risk, of course, is that over-feeding will cause pigs to run to fat, so it’s important that new keepers take plenty of advice from their supplier with regard to diet and quantities. As a general rule, it’s sensible to aim for an 80kg slaughter weight, which will produce a 50-60kg carcass (dead weight).
All-in-all then, the Tamworth ticks many boxes from a domestic keeper’s point of view. It’s straightforward to keep, easy to look after, resistant to disease and a wonderful producer of top-quality meat and bacon. Couple these benefits with its historic and largely unsullied genetic links with the old English forest pig, plus the need to conserve its heritage, and the arguments in favour of the Tamworth mount up convincingly. In all honesty, I can’t really see why anyone with the necessary space and set-up would ever be disappointed with this aristocratic breed.
The genuine article?
If you want to buy a Tamworth pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell Tamworth pigs by name, or Tamworth 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 Tamworth pig contact your breed rep or the Tamworth Breeders’ Club.