Where do modern pigs come from?
Like all farm animals, modern farmed pigs have been bred from wild ancestors. Before they were farmed, pigs were forest animals. A sow (female pig) would produce one litter of three or four piglets a year and form a small social group with other sows. She would wean her piglets (encourage them to start eating solid food) at around 12 weeks of age.
Much of the day would be spent foraging for food and generally exploring the environment. Although the modern pig is very different in appearance, it still shares most of its wild relative’s instincts and behaviours.
Until the 17th Century pigs in the UK were almost pure descendants of the European wild boar, with long, narrow bodies, long snouts, and strong rusty-coloured bristles. During the 18th and early 19th Centuries pigs of a different type, from Asia, were introduced into Britain. It is from a combination of these breeds that modern pigs/commercial breeds were developed. Wild boar still exist in the UK today, having been re-introduced on wild boar farms in the early 1990s. Several feral populations have since become established in the wild as a result of escapes/deliberate releases.
What are the main breeds farmed today?
The main commercial pig breeds used in the UK are the Large White and Landrace, although 75 per cent are cross-bred, being mixed with Duroc, Pietrain or Hampshire. Cross-breeds are thought to have better meat quality, be easier to handle, have a higher reproductive performance and improved growth rate.
Some facts about pig behaviour...
- Pigs are highly intelligent, inquisitive, adaptable, social animals that learn quickly. In many learning tests they can out-perform dogs!
- Pigs forage and root for food (a strong natural behaviour) and, given the opportunity, eat a wide range of vegetables and animal products, including carrion (dead animals).
- Pigs mainly use their good senses of smell and hearing to explore their environment relying less on vision. Pigs are expressive animals and can produce a wide range of different calls/vocalisations. Their tails can often tell you about their mood - happy pigs often have curly tails whereas pigs that are stressed may tuck their tails between their legs.
- In cold weather pigs often huddle to keep warm, whilst in warm weather they wallow in water and mud to keep cool. Pigs are sensitive to extremes of climate as they have no sweat glands (except for on the tip of their snout) and no thick hair cover, relying on fat for insulation.
- Pigs prefer to live in stable families or small groups. They can be aggressive to each other if unfamiliar animals are mixed. Boars are often solitary.
- Pigs are much cleaner animals than people often believe, and if given properly designed living accommodation they will use one particular area for dunging, keeping their lying/sleeping area clean.
- Shortly before farrowing (giving birth) sows develop a strong behavioural need to build a nest from materials such as straw or twigs.