Meet a Dorset woman working to preserve a British breed of pig which is rarer than the Giant Panda. Tracie Beardsley reports
Gloucester Old Spot pig, Cynthia lived on a farm where Lillie, a student at the time, had a weekend job mucking out horses.
‘I fell in love with her,’ recalls Lillie. ‘Pigs have such brilliant personalities. I was fascinated. I helped out when she was farrowing (giving birth) and weaning her piglets.’
Fast forward and Lillie, now 27, has a seven-acre smallholding in Shillingstone, appropriately called Ham Farm. Here she lives with farmer husband Morgan, their four children ranging in age from two to eleven and seven rare breed Oxford Sandy and Black (OSB for short) pigs. ‘I never planned to have so many children – or pigs!’ laughs Lillie.
The five sows Felicity, Chelsea, Gladys, Peaches and Claudia (I got the privilege of naming her!), plus the two burly boars, Albert and Jethro, live outdoors for most of the year, with wallowing holes and mud galore. They really are as happy as the proverbial pigs in muck and Lillie is about as busy as one person can be; it’s a long way from her number-crunching days working in accountancy.
‘I absolutely love this life,’ Lillie says. ‘There’s admittedly a lot of mud but it’s nothing a pair of overalls won’t protect you from. Though I do get through an enormous number of Wellington boots!’
Lillie’s porcine passion has led her to become one of only 136 registered breeders of Oxford Sandy and Blacks in the country – and she is a highly-respected breed rep for Dorset.
The Oxford Sandy and Black Pig, sometimes referred to as the Plum Pudding, is one of the oldest British pig breeds, existing for around 300 years. It’s become almost extinct twice.
‘OSBs, Tamworths and Saddleback breeds are all rarer than the Giant Panda. There’s only around 400 OSBs registered in the UK – and there’s about 2,000 pandas in the wild, plus more in captivity,’ says Lillie.
OSBs are on the Rare Breeds Survival Trust watchlist. As an active member of the Oxford & Sandy Black Pig Group, championing preservation of this breed, Lillie is passionate about keeping the bloodline pure. ‘OSBs have 13 female blood lines and four male blood lines. I’m strict about focusing on good breed characteristics. Out of the nine litters we had last year, I kept only three pigs for breeding.’
There’s a lot more to consider than a snout and curly tail when you’re looking for a pedigree-perfect OSB. There should be a blaze on the front, a white tail tip, white feet, a good stature and even the teats need to be spaced properly. Lillie explains: ‘If they’re not evenly spaced, the piglets can’t get to them when the sow is on her side, so they won’t be able to feed properly.’
As well as protecting this rare breed, Lillie has 14 ‘growers’, which remain unnamed as they will be slaughtered. Working with a local abattoir and butcher, Ham Farm pork sausages, bacon, gammon, pork burgers, joints, half, and quarter pig boxes are all sold in local farm shops and butchers and Lillie also delivers direct to customers.
Quality not quantity
Oxford Sandy & Blacks have star quality. Five of a recent litter are now petting and pig-racing stars at Farmer Palmers children’s farm in Poole. Lillie also works closely with the Countryside Regeneration Trust at nearby Bere Marsh Farm and has just sold three of her pigs to them. Their natural foraging actions will turn over the land and help to increase biodiversity on the farm.
For the first time, Lillie and some of her rare breed pigs will be at the Spring Countryside Show at Motcombe this month. ‘I’m teaming up with Seb’s Saddlebacks, another rare pig breeder, and we’re hoping to educate the show visitors about these wonderful creatures, their history and their importance as a food source.
‘We value quality over quantity with our pigs. They take longer to mature than commercial pigs but they taste so much better for it. I’m with my pigs all the way – from breeding to butcher and finally to the public. I’m proud to be preserving this rare breed alongside producing sustainable food with local provenance. I know my pigs have a great life.’
Quick fire questions:
A-list dinner party guests?
Jeremy Clarkson – I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his Clarkson Farm Show has done more to publicise farming than any other in a long time. I’d be interested in his views now he has been through issues many of us farmers have experienced.
Books by your bedside?
Anne of Windy Poplars (part of the Anne of Green Gables series). I’ve been on it for a while – I don’t get much time to read!