In his element
Chris Graham meets Jason Knaggs, his Gloucestershire Old Spots, Durocs, dogs, cats and an ageing Kunekune, in the tranquil setting of his north Lincolnshire pig paradise.
After 17 years in the British army, where he served with the Household Calvary and trained as a farrier, Jason Knaggs left the service in search of a quieter life shoeing horses and working with rare breeds.
He’d bought himself an eight-acre plot of land in rural North Lincolnshire, formulated and had approved a business plan to run a rare breeds operation, and submitted a planning application to build a timber-framed house to live in on site.
Unfortunately, things came to a grinding halt when planning permission was declined by the local authority, because the land was in a designated flood risk zone. Jason appealed the decision but made no progress, and that was that. So then he was left with the problem of what to do with the land instead?
Then a friend suggested that he might like to get a few pigs and run those on the land, and recommended the Gloucestershire Old Spots as the ideal starter breed for a beginner. So, with no previous livestock experience, but a wealth of horse-related expertise to call on, he thought, why not, and decided to give it a go.
The first pair of Old Spots arrived in March, 2009 and the rest, as they say, is history. Jason took to them in a flash, and loved every aspect of the routines involved in their daily care.
“Those first animals were bought from a breeder in Cornwall and, quite by chance, included a Princess Freda gilt which, I later discovered, was a pretty rare bloodline. It was a later call from Richard Lutwyche, at the Gloucestershire Old Spots Breeders Club, that alerted me to this and, I think in those days there were only about five other Princess Freda registered sows in existence.
“I’d actually be scheduling to slaughter this sow, but Richard said I mustn’t do that. Instead, I went to another breeder, Andrew Robinson, and bought a good quality stock boar so that I could begin breeding.”
Plenty of distance
“I didn’t want to simply hire-in a boar because I already knew that I was hooked on pig keeping, so buying my own boar seemed the obvious thing to do. But it wasn't all plain sailing by any means; my very first litter, for example, all died when they got to eight weeks old.
“This came completely out of the blue and was quite a shock. All the piglets had looked fit and healthy and appeared to be doing well, and there were no signs that disaster was about to strike.
“I consulted a vet but nobody seemed able to offer an explanation. So I took the hard decision to slaughter the sow and move on. Since then, farrowing has been relatively straightforward, and I was soon setting my sights on the show ring.
“I’d shown Rhodesian Ridgebacks in the past, so was aware of the importance of the breed standard. I knew all about confirmation and, from what I’d seen at the few agricultural shows I’d been to for a look, I felt quite confident that I could have a decent crack at showing.”
So Jason set himself the task of of breeding what he considered to be better examples, and doing so by controlling body fat. He’s worked progressively on this aim over the past four or five years and, if his show results are anything to go by, he’s making a pretty impressive fist of it.
“My aim now is to produce a carcass with an even, 10mm of fat because I feel this produces the best meat quality. However, there is a price to pay for this, in terms of overall appearance. Producing a leaner pig has an effect on the overall look and, while some may consider that mine aren’t as pretty as some others, I think they’re great specimens.”
The Gloucestershire Old Spots is evidently very much part of the furniture now, as far as Jason is concerned, but that doesn’t stop him being interested in other breeds. In 20?? he bought some Hampshires, essentially because he wanted a coloured pig.
“Unfortunately, though, things didn’t work out with this breed in fact, not to put too fine a point on it, those pigs turned out to be a nightmare. I never really got on with them. I don’t know if the problems were strain-related, or it was simply that they didn’t suit my system. But, whatever the reason, they were difficult to handle from day one, were always breaking fences and escaping, and proved to be unreliable mothers.
“So, after about three poor litters and a lot of grief, I decided that it was time to move on. The Hampshires had to go and I opted to replace them with some Durocs. Initially I found the search for stock quite a challenge, but eventually stumbled across a breeder called Julian Swift, who kept a rare boar line called Hulk, and I bought a couple of his excellent weaners late in 2013.”
The Duroc is a breed that seems to have been saddled with a reputation for being awkward to deal with. Mention it’s name and there’s often an intake of breath, as though you’re talking about some kind of scary monster.
But Jason thinks this is completely unjustified. “I can only speak from my experience, and for the bloodline I have, but mine have been nothing but a delight to own. So much comes down to common sense, of course. Sows with weaners need respect – as they do with any breed – but the Durocs certainly make excellent mothers.
“I hardly get any piglet losses (we don’t use crates). The sows are agile and quick to move; a piglet only has to make the tiniest squeak and the mother will be up to give it space. In comparison, some of the GOS sows I’ve had will sit on piglets without batting an eyelid. But pigs are as they are.
“I’ve come to appreciate that it’s pointless trying to humanise them. They are clever animals but shouldn’t ever be treated as a domesticated pet. They’re only really interested in what they want, and if they don’t want to do something, they won’t do it. Pigs are utterly unsentimental, too. If a piglet needs to be cast out for some reason, then the sow will do just that.”
“I bought a Hulk boar from Julian Swift and put it over one of John Millard’s excellent Duroc gilts, and produced a boar which I though was good enough to show. My herd name is Littleowls (because these birds live on my land), so the show boar is Littleowls Hulk 15.
“At the first show he went to, at Newark, he finished a resounding last on the first day but then, under a different judge the day after, he won Reserve champion in the Pig of the Year qualifier!
“This was an amazing turnaround; an overnight success, you might say! I couldn’t believe the judging inconsistency involved, but the second judge evidently got it right. After that, the same animal went on to notable success at prestigious events such as the Royal Norfolk Show and the Lincolnshire Show.
“Then, at the Great Yorkshire Show, he came up against some of Jan Walton’s excellent Durocs. Jan has been a dominant breeder with the Duroc for a number of years, but mine won breed champion there as well as Reserve Modern Breed.”
Jason has obviously set himself a very high standard, in terms of the results achieved with his Duroc boar, but he seems confident about being able to keep things going. “We’ve got some promising-looking youngsters on the ground now from that boar, so I’ve got my finger’s crossed.
“As far as I’m aware, there are only four Hulk boars in the Duroc herdbook and I’m proud to say that two of them are mine. I don’t know much about the history of this bloodline, although I believe it’s quite an old one. But given that it’s now so rare, I’m doubly pleased to be doing may bit to help keep it going. The conservation aspect is very important to me.”
“I’ve been genuinely impressed with the straightforward nature of the breed; I mean, my show boar that enjoyed all the recent success hasn’t broren molly-coddled; he was serving sows throughout the season. Lots of people have been surprised about that, saying I shouldn’t allow this to happen because it’ll make the boar uncontrollable in the show ring. But this just hasn’t been the case.
“I think that the handling of male pigs comes down to a combination of common sense and feel. We guide our show pigs around the ring with minimal interference. I don’t spent the whole time hitting them in the face with the stick because, understandably, I think this makes them angry.
“Also, I’ve heard it said that if you keep the board too close to a Duroc boar, he’ll start to sense his own smell, and become increasingly agitated. To counter this, we often spray our boards with perfume, which seems to be a calming influence.”
As far as meat quality is concerned, Jason has definite views about the virtues of both his Gloucestershire Old Spots and the Duroc. “We tend to use what the Gloucestershires produce for ham and sausages only, while we find that from the Durocs – with its wonderful marbling – is better for joints and, overall, more versatile. The Duroc is typical of a modern pig; it manages fat production very well, more or less whatever you feed it.”
But, when it comes to the inevitable slaughtering process, Jason evidently finds this a difficult process. “I don’t like the thought of my animals being slaughtered; I never have and it hasn’t got much easier over the years. The first time it happened, I found it horrendous. I made myself witness the abattoir process to make sure that the animals were treated properly at the end, but I found it a very emotional business.
“My overriding feeling was one of betrayal towards the pigs, so it was a very difficult time for me. I was shocked at how intense those feelings were. It’s hard to explain to people who haven’t experienced it, but rearing and keeping pigs inevitably leads to bonds being formed; you’d have to be pretty soulless for that not to happen. So, when the end comes, I find it impossible not to feel a degree of guilt about what I’m leading my trusting pigs into.
“The worst part for me is loading them into the trailer, as I’m sure it is for most small-scale keepers. While I imagine that big operators are able to detach themselves to a degree, that’s much harder for those dealing with small numbers. I have so much day-to-day involvement with my pigs that I find it very hard to sever those affections and send them off.
“The flipside of all this, of course, is that these rare breed pigs need to be reared for pork, otherwise those of us who breed them won’t be able to continue doing what we do because there will be no demand. So keepers must be prepared to enter into the cycle of life, and get through the hard bit at the end, to keep the wheels turning.”
“I know that some keepers find it difficult to eat their own, home-reared pork. This wasn’t an issue for me as, by the time the joints and sausages came back from the butcher, I’d got things squared-away in my mind. I was clear about the reasons why the pigs had been slaughtered, and was able to enjoy the pork as the natural conclusion of the whole process. It also helped that everything was jointed for us (I never have the heads back), or turned into sausages, so the link with my living pigs had been broken.”
It’s clear from chatting with Jason and Debbie that they both get enormous pleasure from their pigs. They’re immersed in the hobby and admit that, what with the horses, dogs and cats they also keep, and their children, the time they spend away at shows really is just about the only holiday they get.
Thankfully, though, they’re both equally committed, and driven by the worthy ambitions of keeping their animals happy and healthy, conserving rare bloodlines and breeding the best possible stock. Jason is certainly in his element – both mentally and physically – when on his land looking after his pigs. He’s a man who now revels in the peaceful surroundings of his eight-acre plot, and long may that continue.