Chapter Ten: The Third Boar
There was a third boar at Great Crouches Farm, and I’ve been ignoring him because he didn’t figure in the seminal event of this account, which was a dawn battle in the aftermath of a snow storm between an aggressive young Landrace and an older Welsh that didn’t survive the combat.
I’ve also been ignoring this third boar because he didn’t fit comfortably into Ronald Surry’s anti-male narrative of the world, or, for that matter, into the depiction of boar characteristics that I’ve been building here. Thus it is time to make an amendment, however asymmetrical it will make things. It’s completely appropriate to do so, given that the only truly universal rule is the one that says that all rules have exceptions. It is my experience that the exceptions to rules are nearly always more interesting than the orthodoxies, so here goes:
The third boar at Great Crouchs Farm was a Large White, which is an old British genetic line that is pretty much what it says it is: large and white. The Welsh and Landrace genetic lines are also white and large, just less so.
The Large White at Great Crouchs Farm was very large. He weighed more than six hundred pounds, nearly half again that of the Landrace and the Welsh. He was also the oldest of the three boars, and well beyond the end of a domestic boar’s “normal” productive life. He was nearly six years old, two years past the age at which most boars were “retired”, as the euphemism was, and in the terms that Ronald Surry taught me, euthanized with an humane killer and sent to the Hunt. Pigs—boars and sows alike—continue to grow after they reach breeding capability, which they arrive at between twelve and twenty four months, and then have an optimum “productive life” (in agribusiness terms) that is rarely longer than twenty-four more months. This means that the Large White boar should have been sent to the Hunt long before I arrived. On a “normal” British pig farm twenty years later, he would have long since been killed and his carcass processed into pet food or even agricultural feed, with the possibility that he would be fed to his own offspring in pellet form.
The Large White boar at Great Crouchs Farm had, in practical terms, grown to so excessive a size and weight that the gilts and the smaller sows weren’t strong enough to stand for service to him. As if that wasn’t enough to doom him, he wouldn’t have anything to do with a sow that had been immobilized within a service crate, thus making him still more unproductive. I’m sure Ronald wished he’d smarten up and get over this prejudice, but he didn’t. Like human beings, pigs have idiosyncrasies, and I suppose older pigs have more than most. This was his. It’s not so different from a human male who doesn’t like women who are completely passive about sex. This isn’t only about males being picky, stubborn assholes, either. Remember that a large number of the sows didn’t like the clumsy Landrace boar, and wouldn’t stand service for him unless they were trapped inside the service crate.
The most unusual thing about the Large White boar was that Ronald allowed him to live in semi-retirement, gobbling up large quantities of feed and occupying a heated pen at the edge of the northern field, one that we had to pass by whenever we were going to either of the fields. The boar’s nickname was “Big Boy”, and he was the only pig on the farm to have any sort of name at all—other than the Landrace Boar, who I called “asshole” under my breath after Christmas. Ronald rarely went past Big Boy without stopping to rub his back for a moment with his stick, and to deliver a short and oddly conversational soliloquy concerning farm realities or the weather, to which Big Boy appeared to listen with an equally odd attentiveness.
I think the two, man and pig, had formed a kind of interspecies friendship, or if that’s stretching it, that they were respectful collaborators—which is too abstract. Ronald insisted that Big Boy’s gilts were superior to the offspring of the other two boars; less temperamental, and their litters healthier, with fewer genetic and behavioural anomalies even though their flank length was inferior to those of the Landrace boar, and their hams slightly less generous than those of the Welsh.
After the fight between the two boars, Ronald became vocally critical of the long-flanked Landrace boar, an animal even I could see was heavy in the shoulders and light in the hams. Ronald complained that the offspring of the Landrace seemed to exaggerate those traits, which I thought unlikely, and that the several gilts of that line he’d selected for breeding shared the Landrace’s aggressive temperament, and worse, produced substandard litters. Whether this was true wasn’t something my barely-trained eye could verify, and anyway, I thought it was Ronald’s way of delaying the departure of Big Boy, at least until the replacement for the Welsh boar arrived and was settled in. Ronald, meanwhile, seemed in no hurry to initiate the acquisition of a new boar even though servicing the sows had become a complicated production, given that the choices were the too-heavy Big Boy and the erotically-boorish Landrace.
It might be that Ronald unconsciously identified with Big Boy. Even in 1962, Great Crouchs Farm was becoming an anachronism, as agribusiness practices and values advanced through British livestock agriculture. Artificial insemination of sows was already a common practice on the agribusiness farms, the tails of the newborn pigs were removed at farrow along with their teeth on those same farms, and strict limits on the productive period of sows and boars allowed few of either to survive beyond thirty-six months. The widespread use of farrowing crates was on the rise, with the stalling of sows (which prevented a pregnant sow from being able to turn around) on the horizon. By the mid-1980s few British feeder pigs saw the outdoors from birth to slaughter, and sows weren’t treated much better. Eventually, the treatment of pigs in Britain and elsewhere in the Western world was no more humane than the agribusiness production of chickens has been: the animals confined indoors, unable to move freely, hyperfed for optimum weight gain, crammed with prophylactic antibiotics and growth hormones. Sows were slaughtered the moment their production capacities dipped below targeted norms, and only a few rural boars got anywhere near a sow willing to stand for service.
Great Crouchs Farm, which kept its sows indoors only during farrow and didn’t warehouse its boars at all, was vulnerable to all these “advances” while I was there, and would become more vulnerable to them over the next decade. Ronald’s methods were economically “unsound”. He sent very few sows away before they were four years old, and several of his favourites lasted beyond five, even after their litters began to shrink in size and vigour.
That’s probably part of the reason why, by the early 1980s, the pigs were gone not just from Great Crouchs but from virtually all the small piggeries of the U.K., and agribusiness methods dominated—as they did everywhere else in the capitalist democracies. It definitely wasn’t fun for the pigs: artificial insemination was virtually universal, the sows were permanently crated in stalls so small it was impossible for them to turn around, sows, weaners and feeders were stuffed with drugs from birth to slaughter and you don’t want to even think about what they were fed. Genetic diversity was reduced, and while pork became leaner through “scientific” control over feed and exercise, it also became noticeably light on flavour, and given the quantities of antibiotics and hormones it contained, it arguably wasn’t safe to eat. But hey! Bacon and pork chops were relatively cheap.
Agribusiness methods continued unchallenged into the twenty first century in the United Kingdom and were questioned only after successive outbreaks of foot and mouth disease and swine fever reduced the number of British pigs by a third and led to calls for more humane treatment of the animals that remained. This, along with growing pressures to reduce levels of hormones and antibiotics and to produce better flavoured meat, rebirthed a kind of swine husbandry surprisingly similar to the kind that I saw in the 1960s. The majority of British pork producers have continued to use barely-modified agribusiness methods, but a secondary tier of more healthful pig farming has emerged. The scale has generally been slightly smaller than in Joan and Ronald Surry’s day, the dosing of the pigs with antibiotics is no longer casual and customary, the stalling of sows was banned in 2013, and genetic diversity has been increasing steadily, the flavour of pork has improved, and obscure breeds are no longer rare. Boars even service sows again.
I don’t know how long Big Boy managed to stay on at Great Crouchs Farm. He was still there when I left, comfortable in his private quarters, periodically called upon to service the sturdier sows and to discuss local politics and the weather with Ronald. Just before I left a new boar did arrive, a small, well-formed Welsh with a mashed-up snout that made him look like a punch-drunk boxer. This boar was just over two hundred pounds, and had no detectible character beyond being an aggressive asshole like every other boar—except Big Boy. It would be six months before he was ready to breed, so I have no opinion about what kind of lover he turned out to be.
One more thing about Big Boy. He was in his stall on the morning of December 26th, 1962, and Ronald and I had to pass by it on our way to the south field, plywood sheets in hand, to separate the Landrace and the Welsh. That morning, every sow in the south field shelter was milling around in the snow, grunting and snorting with excitement. Most of the sows from the north field were out and about, too. Pigs are excitable animals at the best of times, and this particular morning, with the boars fighting and the world covered in snow, was a major disturbance of their universe. So where was Big Boy? Why didn’t the Landrace go after him in his heated shed, which was closer to the downed electric fence than the shelter that housed the Welsh boar?
I don’t have the answer, except to note that Big Boy, here as in nearly all else, was a little different. When we passed his shed that morning he wasn’t outside the heated enclosure, banging his head against the gates like a normal boar would have been. He slept through the whole thing. Peacefully.
Dooney’s is serializing, on a weekly basis, Brian Fawcett’s manuscript The Sussex Variations, and a companion piece, The Martian Invasion. Edited by Karl Siegler, this is one of the last books Fawcett completed before his death, from pulmonary fibrosis, on February 27, 2022. Fawcett is a founding co-editor of dooneyscafe.com since its inception in 2001.
You can find the full list of posted chapters here.