More than 25 years ago, Robert Gasgoyne-Cecil, now the seventh Marquess of Salisbury, received an imaginative birthday present – a young and elegant Tamworth sow, which shortly gave birth to a litter of 14 piglets. The then Lord Cranborne was hooked; today he is president of the British Pig Association.
He and his wife named the animal the Empress of Cranborne, in honour of P.G. Wodehouse’s porcine star, the Empress of Blandings: a large Berkshire sow pivotal to several Jeeves & Wooster novels. “The Empress had many progeny and we had some success in the show ring,” recalls the Marquess, who is descended from generations of political heavyweights and has himself held the posts of Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Lords.
Which is the easier field, pigs or politics? “Politics,” he says quickly. “I was very lucky; I wasn’t a really a proper politician. I regard politics a bit like fox-hunting; there’s nothing more serious while you’re doing it, but there is always buttered eggs for tea afterwards.”
In the world of rare-breed animals the Tamworth is something of a success story. In the 1960s its population dipped to under 100 breeding sows, at which level the Rare Breeds Survival Trust would have classified it as endangered. Today there are about 400 sows in Britain (although the RBST labels the breed “at risk”), with herds in Australia, Canada and the US.
Despite its claim to be the nearest thing we have to a native wild pig, the Tamworth originated on Sir Robert Peel’s Drayton Manor estate in Tamworth, Staffordshire, in the second decade of the 19th century. Sir Robert, founder of the police force, was a passionate pig breeder and he crossed his existing herd with a prolific pig called the Irish Grazer.
The resultant Tamworth is a distinctive, long-nosed pig with a heavy coat of ginger hair and an independent mind. Its long back earned it the sobriquet “the bacon pig” and it is still prized by chefs for its good fat cover.
At Hatfield House, the family’s ancestral Hertfordshire home, the Marquess rattles a bucket of pig nuts in the enclosure, calling out “Pig, pig, pig”. The sound of food attracts the attention of a pair of Tamworth sows, plump and redoubtable, like ginger sofas. The Marquess leans down to scratch them behind the ears, whereupon they grunt in pleasure. He has about 40 pigs at Hatfield and a slightly larger herd at his Cranborne Estate in Dorset, where many of his show pigs are based. However, he is in the process of relocating the Dorset pigs to Hatfield, which will then become pig HQ. Plans are afoot for a farm shop at Hatfield Park Farm and Tamworth bacon is very much on the agenda.
The Marquess tries to avoid the word “rare” when talking about older breeds. “If you appeal to people on the basis that the breeds have to be saved because they are dying out, it implies that they are museum pieces,” he says. “The point about traditional breeds is that they have a very important part to play in stock-keeping. They are the guardians of the genes – of all that’s good in British livestock. They guarantee that when you do create hybrids in the future you get proper hybrid vigour.”
The Marquess is also an enthusiastic supporter of the traditional country shows that mark summer in the British countryside. And, naturally, he is proud of the Hatfield House Country Show. Last year there were more than 300 entries to the pig classes alone; an even bigger turnout is hoped for at the next show in a few weeks’ time. He still talks of the year that celebrity pig keeper Liz Hurley (she favours Gloucester Old Spots) came to give out the prizes: “I have never seen so many spectators crowding round the pig ring.”
Even a pampered show pig has to earn its keep and at Cranborne the herd is put to work improving the woodlands. The most bramble-choked thickets cannot withstand the force of a herd of Tamworths. The pigs are released in small paddocks and in a matter of weeks their search for roots and shoots will have ploughed up the area and turned it from scrub to a fine tilth, manuring as they go. The Tamworths are hardy pigs and can fend for themselves in woodland.
The sows are good mothers and have reasonably sized litters – not so many piglets that the mother cannot feed them all, but large enough to make them cost-effective. Their ginger coat – and their love of mud-bathing – also protects them from sunburn. The Marquess plans to release more pigs into the woods at Hatfield: “It’s a modern version of medieval pannage and encourages the wild flowers and regrowth of the woodland.”
Meanwhile, the Marquess has another, even bigger show on the horizon: he is involved in organising next year’s Royal Diamond Jubilee Celebrations. An immensely complex task, and about the only engagement that could keep him away from his beloved pigs.
Hatfield Country Show runs August 19-21. For more information go to www.hatfield-house.co.uk