Woodlands are a pig’s natural habitat. But pigs are adaptable to just about any environment. They live on every continent (except Antarctica).
In the forests and woodlands where wild pigs live, trees and vegetation provide them with shelter and their preferred foods. They like places where they’ll have year-round access to water and moist ground for wallowing, such as swamps and marshes.
In spring they graze on grasses and clover. Throughout the year they’ll forage for berries, nuts, acorns, mushrooms, insects, and sometimes small rodents. But one thing a pig was designed to do is root. A pig’s snout allows it to navigate and interact with its environment – sort of like a cat’s whiskers.
The nasal disc of a pig’s snout, while rigid enough to be used for digging, has numerous sensory receptors. In addition to being useful as a fine and powerful tool for manipulating objects, the extensive innervation in the snout provides pigs with an extremely well-developed sense of smell.
Pigs can smell roots and tubers that are deep underground and in the wild can spend up to 75 percent of their day rooting and foraging. Some homesteaders put pigs’ rooting instinct to work for them and use pigs to “till” garden plots.
Daniel MacPhee and his wife use Guinea Hog piglets on their New England farm, but unlike some farmers, they don’t plan to eat their pigs.
Instead, the piglets are meant as an environmentally- and -budget-friendly cleanup crew of sorts, rooting around to clean out tough, tangled roots after a small flock of sheep has grazed at the couple’s farm, Blackbird Rise in Palermo [Maine].
By having the animals do the work, “we’re not buying machinery and we’re not wasting fossil fuels,” said MacPhee, 35. “They’re eating the roots and vegetable matter, processing that and putting nutrients back in the soil through manure. They’re doing all the same things a tractor does but without the environmental impact.”
The Guinea Hogs on their farm are a “heritage breed,” the name given to any of the distinct breeds that can be traced back to the period before industrial farming. Generations ago, there were hundreds of pig breeds on homesteads in Europe and the United States. But a lot of the historic breeds fell out of favor as the pork industry moved toward leaner carcasses and began large-scale confinement operations. This was in part the result of corn production.
As the larger settled farms of the Midwest began to produce excess corn, the availability and low cost of this feed attracted pig production and processing to the region. By the mid-1800s the states that produced the most corn also produced the most pigs, and production declined in the East and New England. The industry was becoming geographically centralized as well and the number of breeds of pigs began to decline. Several breeds became extinct by the early 1900s.
Pigs are for the most part no longer produced and sold by independent producers on open markets. Since the late 20th century, pig production in the United States has come to be dominated by a few large, vertically-integrated corporations that control every step along the way from the selection of breeding stock to the retailing of pork. A lot of the farmers who are still in the business are contract growers for the corporations. But there are independent pig farmers who are dedicated to bringing back the old breeds and are raising them in the traditional way, on pasture and in woodlands.
Some heritage breeds are very rare and are listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Among heritage breeds is the very popular Berkshire pig, a black pig designated “first class”. Farmers say that Berkshires have an excellent disposition and are very friendly and curious.
The Tamworth is a golden-red pig and a direct descendant of the wild boars that roamed the forests of Staffordshire. They are considered very outdoorsy and athletic. (They make the best bacon in the United States, according to some fans.)
The Large Black retains the traits of its ancestors that lived on the pastures and woods of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are hardy animals that can withstand cold and heat. They are well-known as docile hogs.
The Hereford is a medium-size pig that is unique to the United States. Its name is inspired by its striking color pattern of intense red with white trim, the same as that of Hereford cattle. These pigs also have a reputation for being easy-going.
The Red Wattle is especially in danger of extinction. It is a large red hog with a fleshy wattle attached to each side of the neck. These pigs are very hardy with an especially mild temperament.
There are other heritage breeds, some of which number as low as a few hundred worldwide. Heritage pig farmers want to increase demand for their breeds, because to eat them is to preserve them, they say. There is, in fact, a growing market for heritage pork, which is more tender and tastes much better than mass-produced pork. Just looking at a cut of heritage pork you see a striking difference. It’s typically darker than pork from industrial farms, some as red as beef.
Of course, there are heritage pig farmers like the MacPhees, who just like having pigs on the farm, performing those unique tasks that pigs do.
If you’ve got children, there are heritage pig breeds they would easily get along with. Brian Wright raises heritage pigs and says that some are considered docile while others are seen as “evil, killer hogs” – in other words, very aggressive. You’ve got to do your homework before picking a breed.
The Rossi Farm in Rhode Island began breeding Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs several years ago and the pigs have become a favorite. Nicknamed Orchard Hogs, these pigs originally foraged for windfall apples and are distinguished by the black spots on their white coats.
The Rossis say Gloucestershire Old Spots are extremely friendly and laid-back. When the pigs are in the pasture, the children are often out there with them. And the pigs love having their ears scratched by the kids.