Berkshire buying guide
Chris Graham introduces what must surely be one of the best ‘starter breeds’ around for the domestic keeper
If you’re thinking about buying your first pigs, then the Berkshire could be just about the ideal breed to choose. As a ‘starter pig’ it certainly takes some beating offering, as it does, great personality, friendly disposition, manageable size and some of the tastiest meat around.
An added bonus of opting for the Berkshire is that you really are buying a piece of living history. The breed is one of our oldest, with some suggesting that records of its existence stretch right back to Cromwellian times when, during the mid-17th century, his troops apparently feasted on delicious pork while camped in the Thames Valley.
What a history!
The Berkshire Pig Breeders Club – an organisation itself established in the early 1880s – suggests a rather more recent appearance, proposing that the breed originated in 1790, probably around the then Berkshire town of Wantage (it’s now in Oxfordshire, thanks to boundary changes).
Whichever account you believe, though, its clear that the Berkshire is one of the nation’s most established pigs, and one consequence of this significant history is that the breed has seen many changes. Right from the start it seems to have been extremely popular, and not just in the local area. Early reports suggest significant numbers were to be found as far afield as Devon, Norfolk, Yorkshire and even across in Ireland.
A The Berkshire is a relatively hairy breed; it should be black, long, fine and plentiful according to the breed standard. The darkness of the hair is also said to help protect the pig from the effects of direct sunlight, but shade is still a vital requirement.
B The back should be straight and level along its entire length. Avoid animals showing a noticeable dip towards the rear. Sows like this one require a good depth of body if they are to be good breeders.
C Ears should be fairly large, pricked and carried inclined forward; certainly not folded. Ideally, they will be fringed with fine hair, as in this case.
D One of the most obvious characteristics of the Berkshire is its dished face and medium-length snout (avoid those showing a long nose – more of them around these days). Check jaw alignment and avoid animals showing a discrepancy between top and bottom.
E Neck should be fine, evenly set on shoulders plus free from wrinkles and any sign of a crest.
F Legs are an important feature on the Berkshire, and need to be straight, strong and well spaced. Avoid animals that appear to be standing on their heels, especially at the back. This is particularly important with regard to breeding animals; boars that show this characteristic fault wont be able to mount the sow properly, while sows with it will be weak at the back end.
G Belly should be straight. Look for a minimum of 12 teats. Fourteen is good and 16 is ideal. The two rows should be level on both sides. The more teats there are, the more piglets there can be.
H A good Berkshire should present a ‘white sock’ on each leg, albeit a short one. Ideally the white should not extend up higher than the knee.
I A good, well-rounded ‘rear end’ is important on animals being reared for meat; this is where the hams come from.
J Tail should always be curled and tipped in white.
What's it like?
The Berkshire is medium-sized pig available in just one colour; black with white feet. In fact, a good example should present six white points; white socks on each foot, on the tip of its tail and on its face. The ‘socks’ shouldn’t extend up beyond the ‘knee’, and there should be a strip down the centre of the face which extends partially around the muzzle (not under the chin). The face is where you’ll typically find the greatest variation in white marking.
What to pay?
When buying Berkshires you should expect to pay £50-60 for a good quality weaner for that’s to be reared for pork. Youngsters destined for the breeding pen are likely to cost more, typically £70-80.
To buy a gilt in pig ‘starter pack’, is likely to cost about £250. You can expect between four and eight piglets from a first-timer, rising to a peak of about 12 from a healthy sow in subsequent years.
Top 10 reasons to buy!
- Great temperament
- Hardy and durable
- Resistant to disease
- Wonderfully tasty pork
- Reasonably quick to mature
- Manageable size
- Attentive mother
- Good support from club
- Ideal ‘starter’ breed
- Worthy of conversation
But it’s unlikely that you would recognise the Berkshire of those days, compared to the animal we have now. Then it was a larger, coarser animal which existed in various coloured versions; some were black with white patches, and others a reddish-brown with black spots. Even the ear type varied, with some contemporary reports suggesting large, lopped ears covering the eyes as an alternative to pricked, which existed then too.
However, it was the careful breeding and selection work of Lord Barrington – among others during the 1820s and ‘30s – that was fundamental in the creation of the Berkshire as we know it now. Chinese and Siamese blood was introduced into the breeding mix, which reduced overall size, shortened the animal, added the white points and a pronounced dished face with snub nose, and fixed the colour as black together with the prick ears.
This comprehensive ‘upgrading’ saw the popularity of the breed take another leap forward. Examples were exported to America soon afterwards, and the first, dedicated breed society was formed there in 1875. It became a popular show breed in the UK too, although this was to prove something of a double-edged sword for the breed.
By 1890 it had become fashionable for exhibitors to breed the Berkshire too fat; a condition that rendered the animal increasingly useless from a practical point of view. This unfortunate, show-led trend was to trigger the start of a decline which saw the Berkshire almost reach the point of extinction just after the Second World War.
The move away from farmyard-based rearing operations to a more efficient, ‘industrial’ approach to pork production in the 1950s and ‘60s, meant that traditional breeds like the Berkshire were cast aside in favour of the bigger, leaner ‘white’ breeds from mainland Europe.
Consequently, the Berkshire fell into the hands of enthusiast keepers, and their efforts since, together with organisations like the British Pig Association and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, have ensured that this wonderful breed continues to survive in viable numbers.
But it’s not all about sentimentality. Quite apart from the emotional need to conserve that many enthusiasts feel, there’s a fundamental requirement to maintain healthy stock numbers because traditional pure breeds like the Berkshire hold the genetic foundations on which the modern, commercial hybrid pigs were built. If, in the future, there’s ever a need to re-invigorate a flagging hybrid strain, it's the likes of the Berkshire that could be used.
The good news is that sourcing decent quality Berkshire pigs is relatively easy at the moment. We’d always recommend buying on recommendation and, preferably from a breeder who is known to the Berkshire Pig Breeders Club (see panel for contact details). Purchasing from a general livestock sale or an unaccredited auction can be problematic in terms of what you actually end up with. However, buying at a British Pig Association-approved sale, where entries will have been verified for quality and pedigree, means that animals sold as Berkshires will actually be Berkshires!
There’s a good spread of club members across the UK who are breeding stock in reasonable numbers and, ideally, one of these should be your first port of call. Bear in mind, though, that most exhibition-orientated breeders tend to breed with the summer show season in mind, producing litters in January and July. However, those breeding purely for pork will be doing so more or less throughout the year.
The Berkshire is a friendly breed, making it extremely well suited to the family environment. They’re a non-aggressive pig with a very happy temperament, so keepers can be confident about spending time around these pigs; being slightly smaller than most other pure breeds, Berkshires also tend not to appear such a daunting prospect in the domestic environment.
Another major advantage of the breed is that it deals extremely well with inclement weather conditions.
The Berkshire is a very hardy pig, and ideally suited to the rigours of outdoor living. Of course, like most other breeds, it’s also expert are turning over grassland. This is something that all keepers simply have to come to terms with; putting pigs on your best lawn is a recipe for disaster!
The 22 weeks that are typically needed to bring animals being reared for general pork on from weaners to their pork slaughter weight (about 55kg), is certainly ample for them to have cleared their enclosure of all low vegetation, giving it the look of a recently rotovated vegetable patch. Incidentally, if you’re looking for bacon and ham from your Berkshires, then the rearing time will need to be extended to 28-30 weeks, allowing extra development time for the loin etc.
Even though the Berkshire grows into a relatively small adult pig, it’s still important that any animals you keep are given enough space in which to thrive and enjoy a happy, healthy life. As a very general rule, a couple of Berkshires being grown for the freezer will require a minimum area of 20’x10’.
But this is the least that should be allowed; they can never have too much space, so more is always better if you have it available. If you’re setting yourself up to breed, then the pen will need to be much larger as the pigs will be a permanent fixture.
One of the reasons why the Berkshire is such a good first-timer’s breed is that it’s a really straightforward pig to manage.
It demands no special requirements; as long as you can provide suitable housing the offers shelter from strong sunlight, heavy rain, draughts and low temperatures, you’ll be halfway there. Couple this with a constant supply of fresh, clean drinking water, good feed and a secure enclosure and good welfare should be assured.
With regard to feeding, the size of the Berkshire means that these pigs require slightly less feed than the bigger breeds, and it’s important that you get the quantities right. An average allowance for a growing Berkshire would be 2.5kg of good-quality, well-formulated pig nuts a day. But, this will vary, and is an issue you should discuss with the stock supplier. In fact, the breeder you buy from should prove to be a really valuable source of information. So, don’t be shy; ask plenty of questions and glean all the practical information about the likely pitfalls as you can.
The encouraging news, though, is that the Berkshire’s hardy nature ensures that these pigs remain reasonably resistant to most of the common, pig-related diseases. But, at a day-to-day level, keepers need to be ever-vigilant about the risk of parasites (both internal and external).
A decent breeder will have wormed his or her stock, but ask about this before you buy. Also be aware that outdoor pigs can be very susceptible to mange (caused by a parasite carried on foxes). Fortunately, it’s easy to deal with, but it’s got to be spotted in the first place. It will get progressively worse if ignored, and can lead to septicaemia in young pigs, which may be fatal.
Lice can be an issue too, and should be searched for behind the ears in particular; look for white eggs. Bad infestations can affect growth rates, and will drag down health levels generally. Once again, though, lice are easy to deal with once they’re known about.
However, one of the greatest threats facing the novice keeper these days is the irresponsible keeper selling bad stock to unsuspecting customers. As the popularity of keeping pigs at home grows steadily, so the number of less scrupulous sellers increases too. That’s why dealing only with recognised, preferably as recommended by the breed club, suppliers is such an important first step. While there can be no guarantees, of course, at least by dealing with an established breeder/supplier with a reputation to protect, you not only have more of an assurance of quality in the first place, but there’s come-back potential too, should things go wrong.
When buying Berkshires – as with any livestock – it’s always best to buy the best you can; there’s certainly no point in knowingly sourcing sub-standard animals as bad ones cost just as much to look after as good ones!
While you’ll ultimately be in the hands of the seller when it comes to help and purchase advice, there are a few rules worth remembering when you go to assess stock. For a start, only ever consider pigs that appear bright-eyed and active. Avoid those sitting quietly in the corner of the pen, and steer clear of the smaller ones, however cute they may look. They will usually be under-sized for a reason, and it’s rarely a good one so why take the risk?
With Berkshires there are certain tell-tale pointers to watch for, which are visible at all ages. Choose animals that look solid, with straight backs and legs, and a generally rectangular shape. Steer clear of those which are narrow around the hips, or which stand with their feet close together. Both these characteristics can point to undesirable leg weakness. Likewise, avoid those with a thin-looking body on top of long legs. Depth of body is important, and the legs should be shorter than the body is deep. It’s always easier to make these sorts of subjective comparison when viewing groups of similarly-ages animals; assessing in isolation can be a good deal more difficult for the inexperienced.
One thing’s for sure, a pair of Berkshires can be a delight to own, whether you’re fattening for the freezer or planning a longer-term breeding program. They are attractive, personable animals in the domestic setting and, when it comes to the quality of their pork, there are those who argue that, together with the Middle White, the Berkshire is in a league of its own.
The genuine article?
If you want to buy a Berkshire pig, make sure you are getting the real thing. Remember that without a pedigree, it’s just another pig. If you want to sell Berkshire pigs by name, or Berkshire 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 Berkshire pig contact your breed rep or the Berkshire Pig Breeders’ Club.