Welsh buying guide
Chris Graham introduces a breed of pig which he argues can offer keepers at all levels just about all they could ever wish for
Lots of people who are keen to get started with pigs these days tend to look no further than the so-called coloured breeds, when deciding which to keep. While spotty pigs, or those with coloured coats, certainly have a visual attraction, they are, of course, no more worthy as productive pigs than the plainer, white breeds.
In fact, in some cases, it’s actually the traditional-looking ‘pink’ pigs that can prove more practical at a domestic level. The Welsh, for example, offers everything that the hobby keeper could wish for apart, that is, from a fancy coat. But if this isn’t an
issue for you then, as we’ll see, you could be on to a winner with the Welsh.
The earliest references to this breed date back to the 1870s, when there was a considerable trade in Welsh and Shropshire pigs that were moved to Cheshire for fattening on milk by-products.
Increased demand for pork and bacon during the First World War (imports were restricted to animals from Canada and the USA), led to the creation of the Old Glamorgan Pig Society in 1918; the first pig
A A good Welsh should have lopped ears that meet at the tips, and end just short of the tip of the nose. Ears have gone a little awry in some bloodlines in recent years.
B Avoid animals with pronounced dishing of the snout; it should be essentially straight according to the breed standard. Jaw problems are very rare.
C Steer clear of ‘jowly’ examples; Welsh pigs with fat necks should be avoided.
D Good, strong, well-spaced legs are another important requirement. Avoid animals with legs that aren’t straight, and those that are ‘pigeon-toed’. Also make sure that the toes are of equal length on each foot.
E Underline should be straight. Avoid animals, which appear ‘gutty’ or pendulous in this region. There should be at least 14, evenly-spaced teats, all of which need to be functional.
F Quality and size of hams is another important Welsh feature. The breed is known for them, so they should be good and fleshy, right down to the hocks.
G Back should be as straight and level as possible, and wide between the shoulders; the flat of your hand should fit comfortably between the shoulder blades. Overall length is important too, although this shouldn’t be exaggerated. As a rough guide, look for two-thirds of the body length within the back, and the remainder in the hams.
H Although the carcass is classified as lean, that’s in pure breed terms. There’s a world of difference in meat quality between this animal and a modern, commercial pig. Rose patterns in the hair are best avoided, and animals with these shouldn’t be used for breeding.
What to pay?
The cost of Welsh pork weaners is on a par with most native breeds, so expect to pay £50-60 each. However, if you want breeding-quality youngsters then you’ll need to up your budget to £100 per animal.
Breeding gilts should be available for £300, boars a little bit more and, at the top end of the scale, the best examples can fetch £700+.
Very fast grower
Friendly and docile
Hardy and adaptable
breed society in Wales, and the first herdbook followed a year later.
Pigs of a similar type were also bred in Cardigan, Pembroke and Camarthen, and the growth in popularity here led to the formation of the Welsh Pig Society in West Wales, in 1920. These two breed societies amalgamated in 1922, to become the Welsh Pig Society then, in 1952, the Welsh breed joined the six other pedigree breeds already represented by the National Pig Breeders Association (now known as the British Pig Association).
The period after the Second World War was very good for the Welsh pig; increasing supplies of animal feed led to a dramatic increase in the national pig herd. The number of government licences issued for Welsh boars increased dramatically, and it became the number three sire breed in Great Britain, behind the Large White and the Landrace.
This period saw the Welsh used widely in commercial herds, but enthusiast keepers remained also. Breeders were enjoying success in the show ring (with a slightly different type of Welsh), as were producers entering carcasses at Smithfield and other primestock shows; the breed was a top performer in both the pork and bacon sectors.
I suppose to many of you, the Welsh looks like a pig should. Ask anyone to conjure up the image of a pig in their mind’s eye, and the chances are that the animal they think of will look like a Welsh pig.
Despite a generally pink appearance, this is classified as a ‘white’ breed, and is characterised by its long, level body, deep, strong hams, well-spaced legs and lop ears that meet at the front. George Eglington, widely acknowledged as the founder of the modern Welsh breed, once described the perfect Welsh pig as ‘pear-shaped’, when viewed from either the side or from above.
Welsh piglets and fast growers and strong developers. Litters are large, too.
One of the great things about the Welsh is that it’s a native breed that hasn’t been spoilt by the often debilitating effects of in-breeding, or the whims of success-seekers in the show pen. It remains a fantastic all-rounder that’s still known and respected for its hardiness and ability to thrive under a wide variety of conditions, both indoors and out.
Despite these practical advantages, though, the Welsh’s popularity slumped during the 1980s and, at the lowest point, it’s thought that there were no more than about 300 breeding sows left in the UK. Thankfully, though, things have recovered from that worrying low-point, and the past few years have seen a steady growth in both animal and owner numbers, which is reassuring news for this important and influential breed.
Another factor, which must surely have helped in the recent resurgence, was a grant provided by the Welsh Assembly. A condition of this was that a non-profit-making company was set up exclusively to promote the breed. The result was The Pedigree Welsh Pig Society, which is now
working hard to give the breed and its keepers the support they need.
Even now, though, the Welsh remains a pretty regional breed. It’s still quite strong in its homeland, where it was developed from indigenous pigs. Apparently there are also some breeding links with the Landrace (which was introduced during the 1950s) and the Large White, although details about the latter are sketchy.
But whatever was used in the mists of time, what we all have to benefit from now is a pig breed that still does exactly what it should. To this day, the Welsh remains a viable prospect in economic terms, and retains those all-important core features that made it such a success in the first place.
Today, keepers of Welsh pigs – whether you’re breeding for commercial reasons or simply rearing a couple of weaners for the freezer – can expect animals that are fast to grow, deliver lean carcasses and breed with great productivity. In
this respect, you could argue that the Welsh offers just about the ideal half-way house between an interesting native breed and an efficient, modern hybrid. It provides the pork quality of a traditional breed, combined with the fast-maturing performance of a commercial animal; both really desirable qualities, whatever your objectives.
Other plus points include the fact that the Welsh is really easy and straightforward to breed. Having escaped the level of in-breeding that’s hit the fecundity of some other native breeds, it remains a highly prolific animal, and the sows always milk well and make excellent mothers.
Litter sizes are large (12 viable and strong piglets are a common occurrence), and the youngsters rocket up to a decent pork weight in just four months. What’s more, they’ll do this on exactly the same feed ration as any other breed. Weights are good too; expect a 55-60kg carcass from a porker or, if you grow it on for an extra month or so you should get to the 90kg mark, for decent bacon production.
But where the Welsh can really score over most other native breed options is that the dreaded ‘running to fat’ risk is all but non-existent. While over-feeding or enduring an unforeseen delay with your slaughter date, can pile on the fat and spoil the carcass with many pedigree breeds, the Welsh doesn’t suffer in this way.
The leanness of its meat should be assured in all but the most extreme cases of mis-management. However, with this in mind, don’t assume that the meat produced will be like the sort of tasteless offerings so often found on supermarket shelves. Be assured that the Welsh still benefits from intra-muscular fat, which means that the meat is both succulent and flavoursome. It’s for this reason that the Welsh has been so successful over the years in carcass shows.
At a more general level, there’s little to dent the appeal of the Welsh pig from the domestic keeper’s point of view. If you’re after an animal that’s straightforward and easy to look after and manage, then you’ve found it!
The Welsh is an extremely friendly pig to be around, and it’s characterful too. While lacking the visual dynamism of, say, an Oxford Sandy and Black, this breed leaves nothing to be desired on the personality front. They are great pigs to interact with on a daily basis, and those paying them the necessary attention will quickly come to appreciate the endearing character differences that exist between their animals.
The breed’s large, lopped ears help to keep these pigs manageably docile, making them excellent in a domestic environment. The sows remain friendly and approachable even when they have piglets, and are great with children. Even the
boars are generally happy characters, staying amenable and controllable across the age range. The generally placid character means that the Welsh is easy to train with a board and stick, even for younger keepers. It’s ideal for those who fancy their first experience in the show ring, too. What’s more, because there are fewer ‘modern’ breeds on the show circuit than coloured breeds, good examples stand a reasonable chance of coming away with a rosette!
There’s little doubt that the Welsh represents one of the most sensible options for people who want a pig that’ll repay them with excellent, practical performance. On the downside, just about the only thing to watch out for is the risk of sunburn. Being a white pig, the effects of exposure to sunshine can be unpleasant for the animal, so it’s important that shade is always available in the pen. A decent wallow is another essential, as these pigs love nothing better than covering themselves in watery mud.
As I’ve already mentioned, the Welsh is a prolific breed that produces large litters of fast-growing piglets. However, not everyone wants to keep a boar, and one way round this is to use artificial insemination (AI). The good news, in this respect, is that there are now a number of Welsh boars at stud at the AI Centre, Deerpark Pedigree Pigs, in Northern Ireland. So, not only does this mean that top-quality semen can be bought and used by keepers wanting to breed, but it also opens up the possibility of trying the Welsh as a crossing sire with something like a Saddleback. This can be a particularly useful option if you have a sow that’s produced over-fatty pigs in the past.
There’s more good news on the health front too, as the Welsh isn’t a breed that’s especially prone to any specific disease. Therefore, as long as welfare and husbandry levels are up to scratch, these pigs will sail through life in a happy and trouble-free manner.
So, all-in-all, the Welsh is a great, dual-purpose breed that does exactly what a pig is designed to do, and you can’t ask for more than that.
The genuine article?
If you want to buy a Welsh pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell Welsh pigs by name, or Welsh 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 Welsh pig contact your breed rep or the Welsh Pig Breeders’ Club (refer to the Welsh breed page for contact details).