If you should happen to visit me on the wrong day you’ll be greeted by the all-pervasive smell of pig manure. Every month or so, a large pig farm nearby pumps out its slurry, and the whole region knows about it.
Not that I am one of those people who think the countryside should smell like an air freshener. But this smell is often unbearable. It’s not a natural smell. It has a concentrated acidic note that burns the eyes and throat. It’s like living under a poisonous blanket; there is no escape from it other than to go somewhere else. But at least I’m not one of the pigs that have to endure it all the time.
I like pigs. They’re probably my favourite farm animal. They’re intelligent, clean (given the chance), have individual characters, and most of them are remarkably amiable on the whole. They have a natural curiosity that makes them quite endearing, and they’re great communicators. To listen to a pig grunting as it ploughs up the ground with its snout, or contentedly chats to its babies as they suckle a long line of teats, is to listen to the sound of happiness. They’re singularly unimpressed by humans too. There’s a wise saying, attributed to Winston Churchill, himself a pig keeper: “a dog looks up to you, a cat looks down on you, but a pig treats you as an equal.” There’s food for thought in that.
Pigs have a long history of involvement with man. Once, every village kept a few pigs, and many a London street held a pig sty or two well into the 19th century, or else let their pigs roam free, supping on discarded food stuffs. A pig is one of the most omnivorous animals of all, and can quickly put on weight on a relatively meagre diet. Not that they do so in today’s factory farming system. Pigs are fed a high protein diet that enables them to reach pork or bacon weight in just a few months. Two to four pounds of food to one pound of meat is the rough conversion. Pigs are efficient cleaner-uppers, too efficient one might say for their own good.
Medieval hunters – and a lot of modern ones too – hunted the wild pig, regarding it as the ultimate quarry for its speed, strength and cunning. A pig can hide in thick undergrowth and remain still for hours, but if disturbed can run fast and has the strength to resist capture. Get hit by a running pig and you’ll know what a formidable animal it is. Many of the pigs that are hunted are the descendants of domestic pigs that have escaped and gone wild. As a pig can expect to have ten or more little ones every year, it’s easy to see why they are regarded by some as a serious nuisance that must be kept under control. But a short visit to YouTube will suggest that for many pig hunting is about more than responsible management of an expanding population. Some people clearly get off on pig hunting, and the means to do so have become increasingly attractive and sophisticated. In Texas you can go pig hunting in a helicopter for a starting price of $2500 for just two hours’ sport. Mind, you better make sure you don’t weigh over 300 pounds yourself (that’s more than the weight of one of the pigs you’ll be hunting). The company insists on a weight check before flying. If you’re not too fat you’ll have a grand old time and expect to bag at least ten pigs. Not that you’ll take the meat home. That’s not the point. The point is to kill and have a good time doing it.
There’s something about our relationship with pigs that brings out the best and the worst in humans. When people reared a pig in the sty at the bottom of the garden it lived alongside them, eating more or less what they ate, and when it was killed it provided food and clothing for a whole year. There were rituals associated with the killing, and its death was an intimate, personal affair. To kill a pig you got up close and stuck it in the neck with a sharp knife. This is Thomas Hardy describing the death of a pig in Jude the Obscure:
“Is Challow come?” she asked.
They waited, and it grew lighter, with the dreary light of a snowy dawn. She went out, gazed along the road, and returning said, “He’s not coming. Drunk last night, I expect. The snow is not enough to hinder him, surely!”
“Then we must put it off. It is only the water boiled for nothing. The snow may be deep in the valley.”
“Can’t be put off. There’s no more victuals for the pig. He ate the last mixing o’ barleymeal yesterday morning.”
“Yesterday morning? What has he lived on since?”
“What–he has been starving?”
“Yes. We always do it the last day or two, to save bother with the innerds. What ignorance, not to know that!”
“That accounts for his crying so. Poor creature!”
“Well–you must do the sticking–there’s no help for it. I’ll show you how. Or I’ll do it myself–I think I could. Though as it is such a big pig I had rather Challow had done it. However, his basket o’ knives and things have been already sent on here, and we can use ’em.”
“Of course you shan’t do it,” said Jude. “I’ll do it, since it must be done.”
He went out to the sty, shovelled away the snow for the space of a couple of yards or more, and placed the stool in front, with the knives and ropes at hand. A robin peered down at the preparations from the nearest tree, and, not liking the sinister look of the scene, flew away, though hungry. By this time Arabella had joined her husband, and Jude, rope in hand, got into the sty, and noosed the affrighted animal, who, beginning with a squeak of surprise, rose to repeated cries of rage. Arabella opened the sty-door, and together they hoisted the victim on to the stool, legs upward, and while Jude held him Arabella bound him down, looping the cord over his legs to keep him from struggling.
The animal’s note changed its quality. It was not now rage, but the cry of despair; long-drawn, slow and hopeless.
“Upon my soul I would sooner have gone without the pig than have had this to do!” said Jude. “A creature I have fed with my own hands.”
“Don’t be such a tender-hearted fool! There’s the sticking-knife–the one with the point. Now whatever you do, don’t stick un too deep.”
“I’ll stick him effectually, so as to make short work of it. That’s the chief thing.”
“You must not!” she cried. “The meat must be well bled, and to do that he must die slow. We shall lose a shilling a score if the meat is red and bloody! Just touch the vein, that’s all. I was brought up to it, and I know. Every good butcher keeps un bleeding long. He ought to be eight or ten minutes dying, at least.”
“He shall not be half a minute if I can help it, however the meat may look,” said Jude determinedly. Scraping the bristles from the pig’s upturned throat, as he had seen the butchers do, he slit the fat; then plunged in the knife with all his might.
“‘Od damn it all!” she cried, “that ever I should say it! You’ve over-stuck un! And I telling you all the time–”
“Do be quiet, Arabella, and have a little pity on the creature!”
“Hold up the pail to catch the blood, and don’t talk!”
However unworkmanlike the deed, it had been mercifully done. The blood flowed out in a torrent instead of in the trickling stream she had desired. The dying animal’s cry assumed its third and final tone, the shriek of agony; his glazing eyes riveting themselves on Arabella with the eloquently keen reproach of a creature recognizing at last the treachery of those who had seemed his only friends.
Pigs are perhaps too much like us. Their digestive system is much like ours, and their hairless bodies are prone to sunburn like ours too. Insulin has been made from the pancreases of slaughtered pigs. A few of the smaller breeds have been adopted as pets, adapting to an urban lifestyle and quite capable of being house-trained. George Clooney, Paris Hilton and Lily Allen have all kept pet pigs.
But still we like pork. Though free range pork might look good on the supermarket shelves, almost all pork consumed worldwide is reared in factory conditions. Though the UK has higher standards than many countries when it comes to animal welfare, but we still have a lot of farms with more than 40,000 birds, 2,000 pigs or 750 breeding sows, the official definition of ‘intensive’. Some of our prettiest, most rural counties hold some of these giant, US-style mega-farms. North Yorkshire, for example, hosts over 220,000 indoor reared pigs. For the most part these factories are kept well out of sight of people. Can’t have them spoiling the view, or the smell, now can we?
What to do about this isn’t so straightforward. Outdoor reared chicken and pork account for a tiny proportion of the total volume of meat consumed in this country, never mind the world. You can’t produce enough food to meet current consumer demand by going organic. Food producers argue that by keeping animals healthy indoors and still produce enough affordable food. But that often involves feeding them antibiotics whether the animals need it or not. Worryingly there are signs that some pigs in China – where they have more intensively reared pigs than anywhere else – are developing resistance to Colistin, the most powerful antibiotic we have. If that resistance should pass into the human food chain the results could be more than serious.
A recent BBC 4 programme proposed this might be pigs’ revenge for all the harm we have done them. There’s a certain poetic, if painful, justice in that. Pigs have been shown to have complex emotions, and to have reasoning capacities similar to that of small children. So far pigs have held a largely benign attitude towards us, which is rather more than we deserve. Maybe one day they will look upon us not as equals but see us for what we are.