Ancient breed gets a new lease of life

Butchers who trade on the provenance of the Tamworth traditional pig breed may like to thank the Wheatley-Hubbard family, who are credited by many for saving it from extinction.

The Wheatley-Hubbards can trace Tamworth breeding back to the Jemima, the foundation sow of the Berkswell herd in the 1920s, started by great grandfather Josiah.

The Tamworth is one of the oldest of British breeds, descended probably from the Red Barbadan or Axford - a throwback to the Sus scrofa, the European wild boar. Its long snout is a mark of the wild pig and is perfect for foraging scrub and uncultivated land. Its slow maturing leads to high-quality flavour.

Ann Wheatley-Hubbard took up farming in Warwickshire in 1943 at the age of 19, after the death of her father. In 1962 she moved the farm, including all the livestock, to Boyton in Wiltshire. This was at a time when Tamworth population was at its lowest.

But today the Berkswell herd of Tamworths is thriving - as is Caroline's farm shop, which is embedded in an area steeped in the traditions of pig farming. Nearby Trowbridge gets its name from a type of pig housing, and Calne was the base for Harris and Bowyers to establish the famous Wiltshire cure bacon.

The Wheatley-Hubbards have also been pioneers of farm shops. For over 20 years they have sold Tamworth pork from the back door of the farm. The pigs were simply cut into primal cuts and wrapped.

Five years ago, the family converted the farm's redundant office into a butcher's shop. Foot and mouth disease hit six months later and Caroline realised the shop was a way of saving her valuable herd, which was now cut off from pedigree sales and livestock markets closed during the epidemic.

A website and mail-order facility have been added to the marketing mix, and new produce includes beef and lamb.

The Wheatley-Hubbards had a few Hereford cross Friesian bullocks from the dairy herd which were grazing on the permanent pasture of the downlands in this picturesque Wylye valley by the river Wylye.

The herd was in danger of getting too old for the 30-month rule, and too fat, and was slaughtered for the shop. The success of this beef led to a more measured approach and selection of breeding stock, and now the picturesque conservation pastures are adorned with 50 pedigree orange-red Sussex cows crossed with a Hereford bull.

"The choice of breed and cross-breeding is to produce calves which grow slowly, mostly on grass, in the traditional way," says Caroline.

The ewes are Suffolk-cross-Mules and the rams are Hampshire Down. The lambs graze the water meadows, which are uncultivated and part of the protected ancient fields. Like the cattle and pigs, slow growth rate is key for the Wheatley-Hubbards, as it produces mature meat with good flavour. This is further enhanced by marketing mostly hoggets, so the meat is at its peak and there is a good meat yield.

The only problem on the horizon, it would seem, is the lack of skilled butchery staff. But the family has been ably assisted: initially by a local school teacher, Mark Uffindell - whose previous experience included working as a shepherd - and then by 19-year-old Daniel Packer, now a full-time butcher and improving his skills through NVQ training with MEAT, based in Ipswich.

Daniel learned basic butchery from Bob Shuckford, now retired, but he was introduced to the pork trade at the age of six, when Caroline came to demonstrate sausage-making at his school.

The farm shop is now open from Wednesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Caroline also sells through farmers' markets - at Salisbury, Shaftesbury, Bradford upon Avon, Frome and Warminster - and this trade has expanded to ­nearly overtake the shop volume.

However, the shop is set to expand, and will move to redundant pig housing nearer the centre of the village. The new shop will be known as the Ginger Piggery, taking its name from the copper coloured skin and hair of the Tamworths that used to be housed there.

The Ginger Piggery will be more than a shop, says Caroline. It will also be an education centre, taking in farm tours, demonstrations, school visits and room-hire for local groups. Five artisan workshops have already been established for local artists, and a Victorian straddle barn in the centre of the courtyard of the old pig unit will be a gallery for exhibitions.

This project is another way the Wheatley-Hubbards are helping to sustain not only a treasured pig breed, but also a thriving rural community.

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