Maria Naylor is besotted with her Large Black pigs, hooked on showing and dedicated to judging, as Chris Graham discovers.
For many pedigree pig keepers, their enthusiasm extends little further than the freezer, where the two or three weaners they've lovingly reared over the fine, summer months, find their eventual resting place. Sure, in most cases, these owners appreciate the superior succulence and flavour of home-reared, native breed pork compared to the supermarket alternative, and usually have an awareness of breed conservation. But that's just about as far as it goes.
The really determined and dedicated enthusiasts, on the other hand, take their involvement with rare breed pigs to a whole new level, and few more so than the subject of this feature, Maria Naylor. Over the past 20 years, she's gradually immersed herself in all aspects of the scene, pin-pointing and then specialising in a single breed, selecting bloodlines and breeding her own stock, enjoying showing success, exporting pigs, organising shows, becoming a pig judge and getting actively involved on the administrative side of the BPA. It's an impressive resumé, so I was keen to discover from Maria how on earth she manages to fit it all into her already busy daily schedule!
Testing the water
Although Maria's focus today is firmly on the Large Black, it actually took her a while to reach that stage, and she owned a couple of other traditional breeds before narrowing things down. The fact that she got started with pigs at all came courtesy of a move to a small farm in rural East Sussex, where she and her husband – John – finally had enough space to start keeping livestock in the numbers they wanted.
"I grew up on a dairy and beef farm in Essex," Maria explained to me, "and my grandmother kept a few pigs, simply to provide pork for the freezer. Other than that, I had no previous experience with pigs. Years later, once I was married and had children, it was actually my youngest son who decided that he wanted to start keeping his own pigs. So we bought him a couple of weaners, and that's how it all started.
"We moved again, to a small farm near Uckfield, in rural East Sussex and, given that we had plenty of space, we decided to get into pedigree pigs. I was already very aware of the conservation aspect, and just how rare most of the UK's native breeds had become, so wanted to do my bit to help. After plenty of research into the breeds available, and having decided that I wanted to keep lop-eared pigs, I eventually settled on the Gloucestershire Old Spots and bought some from Dave Overton, in January 2000."
A great influence
"Dave was a fantastically positive influence on us in those early days, and one of the many things he did for us was to persuade me to get involved in the show scene. I wasn't keen on the 'parading in the ring' aspect, so did a deal with my son; I would do all the preparation work if he agreed to display the pigs in front of the judge. Although he was only nine years old at the time, he was happy to do the showing and, following our first event at the South of England Show, he actually made it into the local paper!"
Those early showing experiences certainly made a big impression on Maria, and she quickly became well and truly hooked. "It was just such a friendly environment, and everyone was happy to help with tips and advice, which was fantastic. I've shown sheep in the past, and there's just no comparison; pigs win, hands-down!
"After a couple of years with the Old Spots, and some successful breeding, everything was going really well. Outside the show ring, we'd established ourselves at a couple of local farmers' markets, where our home-reared pork proved very popular. It seemed like a good time to expand and I decided on two additional breeds. Having looked at the rare breeds list to identify those most in need of help, I opted for a couple of British Saddlebacks from Angus Stovold, plus Large Blacks from Brian Card."
"Things grew pretty quickly from that point and, in what seemed like no time at all, we were running a herd of 75 pigs, with one boar for each of the three breeds. We'd also done a deal to supply a local butcher with pork, which worked well for a time, too. However, the sudden and unexpected collapse of the butcher's business followed and, all of a sudden, we found ourselves with more pigs than we knew what to do with.
"This body blow prompted a serious re-think, and the only sensible option was to downsize. After much thought, we decided to part with the Gloucestershire Old Spots. While I loved the breed, it was the best-supported of the three I had, so was in the least need of help. After that, we continued happily breeding, showing and selling the Saddlebacks and Large Blacks until, in 2014, I had an accident which forced my hand yet again.
"While walking on the South Downs, I fell and broke my ankle. The injury was quite serious, and I was forced to use a wheelchair for six weeks, which put me out of action as far as pig-keeping was concerned. This occurred during a particularly bad winter, and the extra workload it placed on John proved a real challenge. So, soon after I was back on my feet again, I decided to cut the herd even further, and it was the British Saddlebacks that went.
"Once again I was very sad to see them go but, looking at it practically, their departure has allowed me to focus all my attention on the Large Black, which has proved to be a good thing. I now concentrate on five of the rarest bloodlines – Diana, Gold Vase, Golden Harvest, Julia and Blackie – which is very satisfying."
It's clear from chatting with Maria that she's very serious about the quality of the pigs she's breeding, and that she gets an immense amount of satisfaction from the validation that showing continues to bring. She's also enjoyed the chance to concentrate all her efforts on the Large Black, which has resulted in some notable achievements, not the least of which is having a boar accepted on the AI programme at Deerpark.
"Overall, I'm been happy with the quality of the Large Blacks I've been breeding from the five bloodlines I keep. The only real issue I've encountered concerns occasional foot quality; some examples have been down on their pasterns. I've been working hard to select this defect out, but it's a slow process. Part of the problem is that I'm not able to tell for sure that there's an issue until an individual's body weight becomes such that the weakness is exposed – typically after about a year.
"Of course, you never stop learning and, as far as I can see, there are no short-cuts to breeding excellence. You simply have to be prepared to be patient and gain the experience in the time-honoured fashion. Patience, though, is a commodity that increasing numbers of people are short of nowadays, as I notice ever-more keepers trying to buy their way to trophies. I'm all for newcomers sourcing the best stock they can find, but there's little to be achieved by then showing those animals as your own.
"It's just such a hollow victory to win with a pig that's been bred by somebody else; where's the satisfaction in that? In my view, serious keepers should start breeding their own pigs and learning the ropes over a few generations, before venturing anywhere near the show ring."
As things stand, Maria's Large Black herd consists of two boars and seven breeding sows. In addition, there are two dry gilts, an August gilt and two litters on the ground, which makes for a pleasantly manageable group. I have a couple of Diana sows which I'm hoping are pregnant now and, if my scanning proves positive, I'll be moving one inside for farrowing, and selling the other one.
"I've certainly found my Large Blacks to be decent breeders, with the sows producing good litter sizes. Fertility levels are good, too, and I typically get nine or 10 piglets per litter, with decent survival rates. The boars always perform well and, with the Large Black being such a docile breed, they remain easy to handle at all times. They're not big wanderers either so, if ever there's a breach in the fence, the escapees never go far.
"I'm sufficiently experienced now to cope with most medical matters myself, so haven't needed to call the vet for as long as I can remember. Thankfully, there have been no health-related dramas, and I'm sure this is largely thanks to the Large Black being such a hardy, hardy, no-nonsense sort of pig which simply gets on with life. I'm happy to report that there hasn't been a single medical drama for which we've needed to call on outside help.
"We have heavy, clay soil here so water-logging is very common during the autumn and winter months, but the pigs cope much better with the endless mud than I do. I've been planning to install some concrete feeding pads in the pens, just to make life a little easier for us and the pigs, but it's one of those jobs that we never quite get around to.
"The smaller pens, which tend to be used by sows and their piglets, certainly lose grass cover quickly when occupied during wet weather, but the bigger enclosures are large enough to keep their cover. Fortunately, we have enough space here to rotate pen use, allowing the muddy ones time to recover and re-green before getting pigs again.
"As for the arks, we're very traditional and favour the wooden-framed, plywood and corrugated steel types. We've made some of our own, too, and all sit off the ground in a bid to keep them dry and cosy inside. Those that are in our wettest pens sit on concrete pads, while those in slightly drier areas are raised on platforms made from reclaimed railway sleepers. Both systems work well, and minimise bedding wastage."
Shows and judging
"I've become quite involved in a few of the shows here in East Sussex, which I enjoy. I'm on the pig and sheep committee (and run the pig section), for the Heathfield Show, and do the same for the Edenbridge & Oxted Show. I used to show my pigs regularly at both events, and got drawn on to the committees as a result. I'm also on the sheep, pig and goat committee for the South of England Show, at Ardingly, so my summers are generally pretty busy, on top of looking after and showing my own pigs at six or seven other events every year.
"I'm also about to join the committee of the Large Black Pig Breeders Club and, through my association with the club, I've got involved with the export of pigs. About four years ago the club forwarded me an enquiry from a commercial pig farmer in Germany who wanted to buy some Large Blacks. He subsequently visited the farm, was happy with what he saw and placed an order. I was able to supply him with some sows and a couple of boars, and sourced additional good examples so that we could fill a trailer.
"Chris Impey helped me with all the export documentation, and we both delivered the pigs to their new home in Germany. I heard from the same farmer again earlier this year, with the news that one of the boars I'd sent had died, and he wanted a replacement. I've supplied him with one large boar, a couple of young ones plus a selection of weaners, and Chris trailered them out there again.
"A few of my Large Blacks have also been exported to Italy, on a trip organised by Michaela Giles, and another batch went out to Spain. I'm very pleased to have been able to send my stock abroad as it vindicates the work I've been doing with the breed. I've worked hard to establish a reputation within Large Black circles, and this sort of demand for my pigs makes all the effort worthwhile."
No mean feat!
As if all this wasn't achievement enough, Maria has also made significant strides into the world of show judging and has been added to the judging list, for traditional breeds. This is another mark of her dedication to the cause and, as she explained to me, is no mean feat. "To even be eligible to start on the process of becoming a judge, applicants must be able to show at least five years of pedigree pig breeding experience, after which you're entitled to sign up for the judging apprenticeship scheme.
"This takes a year to complete, and involves you shadowing various judges at shows, learning from their work and demonstrating your ability to assess show pigs. If the report made at the end of this period is favourable, you're then able to move forward on to the affiliated judges list. Once on this, you can be selected to judge either traditional or modern breeds at smaller shows on your own, or your nominated breed – in my case, the Large Black – at larger events. You remain on the affiliated list for three years.
"Successfully complete this period and you can graduate to either the modern or the traditional judges list, where you spend another three years gaining more experience. Once you reach the end of this, you'll have spent 15 years on your journey and, if you're good enough, may then get the final honour of being invited on to the interbreed list for an additional three years, after which you'll be able to judge at championship level."
Maria aims to progress as far as she can, and my guess is that time will be her only limiting factor as, not content the show committee work she's already doing, she's become involved with the BPA. "I'm now a south-east area rep for the BPA which, in turn, has allowed me on to the BPA committee with special interests in pork, education and shows. What's more, I recently became a BPA council member!"
Quite evidently, Maria takes everything in her stride, and she admitted to me that she remains as enthusiastic now as she did nearly 20 years ago, when her first Gloucestershire Old Sports arrived. There have been ups and downs along the way, but nothing has deflected her determination to do things properly, to learn at every opportunity and to do everything she possibly can to promote the Large Black breed she loves so much.