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Perspective Chapter - The Role of British Breeds and Breeders in the Development of the Modern International Pig Industry

Written By

Marcus Bates

Submitted: 08 November 2021 Reviewed: 09 February 2022 Published: 31 May 2022

DOI: 10.5772/intechopen.103157

Tracing the Domestic Pig IntechOpen
Tracing the Domestic Pig Edited by Goran Kušec

From the Edited Volume

Tracing the Domestic Pig [Working Title]

Dr. Goran Kušec and Prof. Ivona Djurkin Kusec

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Pigs were farmed in the forests of Britain before becoming more confined from the 13th century onwards. Importations of breeds from around the world and an interest in animal breeding created a wide variety of native breeds. The establishment of the National Pig Breeders Association and its herdbooks in 1884 led to breeding improvement. Over the next century, British breeding pigs were exported to all corners of the globe. The British Large White or Yorkshire pig has been used as the foundation for every commercial industry from Australia to Zambia. The diversity of British pig breeds inherited from the early 20th century was put at risk by government and industry policies focussing on a single type of pig for meat production. From the 1970’s Increasing interest in conservation began to reverse this trend towards extinction for the British native pig breeds. Prospects for the survival of these breeds have been greatly increased as a result of new techniques for the freezing and thawing of porcine semen. The UK is still home to several international breeding companies and research institutes involved in mapping the pig genome and exploiting these new technologies to develop disease-resistant pigs or new techniques for conservation.


  • British
  • pigs
  • breeds
  • conservation
  • Herdbooks
  • pedigree
  • exports
  • cryopreservation genome

1. Introduction

The United Kingdom has played a significant role in the development of today’s modern pig industry. A wide variety of local breeds were developed in the 18th century and these were combined with imported breeds to create a rich pallet of native pig breeds. At the end of the 19th century, the National Pig Breeders Association established formal herdbooks which in turn allowed breeds to be improved. In the early part of the 20th century, British breeds were exported worldwide and used as the foundation for commercial pig production on every continent. Government policies in the 1950’s almost led to the extinction of most of the British native breeds but thanks to the dedicated efforts of a small number of pedigree breeders, the majority of these breeds have survived. Today the domestic pig in the UK is a blend of commercial synthetic hybrids developed from the original pedigree breeds and produced by international breeding companies alongside 16 pedigree breeds of which 11 are British native breeds managed by pedigree breeders.


2. The early history of pig keeping in Britain

The earliest records of organised pig production in Britain date back to the 7th century. At that time much of the landscape was still covered by forest and large groups of pigs were driven out into the woods to feed on acorns from oak trees and beech mast. This method of pig production was so important for the food supply of the people of that time that there were even laws protecting these trees and woodland was valued by its capacity to support herds of pigs. Pigs frequently appeared in Anglo Saxon wills and legacies. Sharon Turner in his History of the Anglo Saxons gives examples - Thus Alfred, a nobleman, bequeathed to his relatives a hide of land with one hundred swine, and directs that another hundred shall be given for masses for the benefit of his soul; and to his daughters he leaves two thousand. So Elfhelm left land to St. Peter’s at Westminster, on the express condition that they should feed a herd of two hundred swine for the use of his wife [1].

The Doomsday book commissioned by William I in 1086 as a survey of lands and property often estimates the value of the lands and forests belonging to the king, the monasteries, the hundreds, and other divisions based on the number of hogs which can be fed on each separate portion.

From the 7th to 13th century there are many references to the payment of swineherds which evolved from payment in kind to fixed monetary values and also to the dates at which pannage, the practice of feeding pigs in the woods, could be carried out.

Little is known about the type of pig used in this system of production. Illustrations in ancient manuscripts suggest that the domesticated pig resembled a slightly smaller version of the wild boar which Sanders Spencer describes as a rusty grey colour when young, the colour deepening as the pig reached maturity and becoming dark chestnut brown, with its hairs tinged with grey at the extremities.

From the 13th century onwards the wool trade became the driving force in British agriculture, forests were cleared and more land was converted to pasture and a landowner’s wealth was measured by the number of sheep that he owned.

Pig keeping became a backyard industry with animals fed on waste until the industrial revolution introduced the need for larger-scale production. During this period the small razor backed pig with prick ears had evolved into the Old English Pig which Youatt describes as “long in limb, narrow in the back, which is somewhat curved, low in the shoulders, and large in bone; in a word, uniting all those characteristics which are now deemed most objectionable, and totally devoid of any approach to symmetry. The form is uncouth, and the face long and almost hidden by the pendulous ears. They nevertheless have their good qualities, although aptitude to fatten does not rank among the number, for they consume a proportionally much larger quantity of food than they repay; but the females produce large litters, and are far better nurses than those of the smaller breeds” (Figure 1) [1].

Figure 1.

The old English hog from Youatt 1847.

It is not clear how this lop-eared type was introduced but by the 17th century the smaller breeds resembling the wild boar were confined to Northern England and Scotland and the larger Old English Hog was common throughout the rest of the country. By the end of the 18th century, the Old English Hog had almost disappeared and several regional types had emerged as a result of breeding programmes and the introduction of the Neapolitan and Asian pigs. Robert Bakewell’s pig is the first systematic example of attempts to improve the pig. By the mid of 19th century, Youatt was able to classify a dozen distinct types associated with specific counties all with varying degrees of influence from Bakewell’s improved Leicester and the imported Neapolitan and Asian pigs. During this period organised fattening of pigs on brewery and dairy waste was becoming common and Wiseman suggests specific breeds such as the Berkshire and the white pigs from Yorkshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire were preferred.

These local types were not breeds as we see them today but rather constantly evolving crosses with little or no recorded genealogy. It was into this swirl of crossbreeding and county types that the National Pig Breeders Association was launched in 1884.

In the early 1880’s Sanders Spencer saw the need for effective organisation among pig breeders. In collaboration with many eminent exhibitors and breeders of the time, he laid the foundations of the National Pig Breeders Association (NPBA) and was appointed Honorary Secretary and Editor at the inaugural meeting. Those breeders who launched the NPBA in 1884 adopted a basic principle: they dedicated the association to the improvement of the breed of swine in the UK (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Sanders Spencer, founder of the NBPA.

This mood is reflected in the introduction to the association’s first herd book published on May 1, 1885. “I do not consider it advisable to introduce any controversial matter as to the superiority or antiquity of the Berkshire, Black, Tamworth or Yorkshire breeds,” wrote the association’s hon. Secretary. “Neither will I attempt to prove that benefits are to be derived from a careful record of the pedigrees of the animals in which we may be particularly interested … the great success which has attended the various herd and stud books has completely settled that question.” However, there could be doubts among some breeders, he suggested, that no standard of points existed to give a correct description of the variety of pig of which they were “especial admirers” [2].

There followed a scale of points covering the main characteristics of the pig from head to hams to hair. Various additional references were also made relating to the individual breeds allowing “the reader to add as many of these as he pleases to the general standard of points.”

Interestingly, although the association was formed with three breeds, Large White, Middle White and Tamworth (Figures 35), the herd book published just a year after the formation included Berkshires, Blacks and Small Whites (Figures 68) in addition to the three founder breeds. It is also worth noting that all could not have been easy for that first editing committee which laboured to produce the 106-page volume The preface says it all: “It is well-known that great difficulties are generally encountered in the compilation of the First Volume of any Stud or Herd Book. From various causes, greater difficulties than usual have been met within bringing out this small volume, for which a favourable reception is asked.”

Figure 3.

Large white.

Figure 4.

Middle white.

Figure 5.


Figure 6.


Figure 7.


Figure 8.

Small white.

The honorary secretary who drew up the list of standard points was one of the pioneers of modern pig breeding, Sanders Spencer of Holywell near Huntingdon. He founded the Holywell Herd of Large Whites in 1863 with the pigs being subsequently run in conjunction with a herd of animals from the same bloodline only with distinctive snouts and smaller dimensions - the Middle White. This Middle White line was founded on a sow called Busy Bee, a direct descendant of original Yorkshire stock.

But it was the Large White that began to make the biggest strides in popularity - with Holywell stock playing a significant part in the improvement of Danish pigs towards the end of the last century. It was, according to reports of the time, not uncommon for shipments of 20 pigs or more to be sent from Holywell to Denmark. Figures 911 shows show some of the early exports of Large Whites from the United Kingdom to Denmark, Canada and the USA.

Figure 9.

Example of early exports to Denmark.

Figure 10.

Example of early exports to Canada.

Figure 11.

Example of early exports to the USA.

And it was this surge of interest in upgrading the standards of pigs generally that led Alec Hobson, who was secretary of the association for 25 years, to write in the jubilee year (1934) issue of the NPBA Pig Breeders’ Annual: “Improvement is a term which needs to be used relatively; but when the change in conformation has been carried out concurrently with the improvement in growth and the proportion of higher-priced cuts, there can be no question of the wisdom which prompted Sanders Spencer and other pioneers to establish the NPBA” [3].

In those the later years of the 19th century, pedigree pig breeding reflected a strong interest among the aristocracy. The first president of the association was the Earl of Ellesmere, who was followed by Lord Moreton MP, of Tortworth Court, Falfield. The vice-presidents in 1885 were James Howard MP of Clapham Park, Bedford and Sir W. Throckmorton, Buckland, Faringdon. Breeders, however, were scattered throughout the country with the first Herd Book showing addresses from Suffolk to Somerset, Lincolnshire to Cheshire, and London to Leeds. As for the actual number of members, by January 1885 the association list showed a total of 109 pedigree breeders forming the nucleus of an organisation that was to grow in strength and achievements as the years progressed.


3. Another breed joins NPBA

More pedigree societies were formed and in the early part of the 20th century the Berkshire breed joined the association. It was also during this time that Alec Hobson took over as NPBA secretary when the Associations offices were in Derby. He recognised that the association was too far removed from the seat of power and urged that the headquarters was moved to London. It was also Alec Hobson who gave impetus to setting new standards to enhance the improvement of pedigree pigs and stepped up the efficiency of the association as an effective representative organisation for pedigree pig breeders (Figure 12).

Figure 12.

A Berkshire boar from 1904.


4. Early publications

The new vigour was clearly illustrated by the launching of a quarterly journal, the NPBA Gazette, in November 1927. In his first editorial, Mr. Hobson wrote: “We believe that members will appreciate any attempt to keep them better informed of what is happening within the association. Nothing elaborate or pretentious is to be attempted. The Gazette will be produced once a quarter for a year as an experiment. If we are content to start in a small way we can’t fall far, but as the best view is always obtained from a height, so we must aspire to better things as time elapses and we gain experience” [4].

The Gazette continued to be published for more than 50 years. It recorded the activities of the association, as Alec Hobson intended. That first issue included details of an NPBA council meeting, a list of auction sales for various breeds, the names of newly appointed judges for the Berkshire, Large White, Middle White and Tamworth breeds and contained a plug for volume seven of the Pig Breeders’ Annual, a well-established year book produced by the NPBA, which was described as being of “astonishing value” at 2s 1d, post free. The annual dealt with pig breeding, feeding and management from “almost every angle”. The Gazette also gave added appeal to its pages by including the main pig issues of the day.

A reference to a report of the Scottish Pig Industry Committee has a familiar ring. The committee recommends: “Do not go in and out of pig breeding and feeding. Take the rough of the markets with the smooth. Sell your store pigs as far as possible direct to the feeder. Confine feeding pigs to warm quarters in winter to ensure rapid progress with an economical ration. Aim at a high standard of quality, steadily develop your output and take an interest in the important question of organising supplies to the market.”


5. Worldwide demand for British pedigree breeding stock

In May 1928, the Gazette recorded the official opening of the new animal quarantine station at the East India Docks, London, by Mr. Amery, Secretary of State for the Dominions. The NPBA was keen to see the effective operation of the station to aid the export of stock to countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand where the Berkshire, Large Whites, Middle Whites and Tamworth breeds had some popularity. The pages of subsequent issues of the Gazette are filled with reports of export certificates issued. In just one twelve-month period some 600 pigs from the four NPBA breeds of the time were exported to two dozen countries including Japan, The Malay States, Hong Kong and Australia, Morocco, Kenya, The Gold Coast (Ghana) and South Africa, India, Uruguay, and almost all parts of Europe including: Belgium Czechoslovakia, Denmark Germany, Holland, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, Poland, Romania and Switzerland [5], These early shipments went by sea as shown in Figure 13 and international shipping agents were regular advertisers in the Pig Breeders Gazette (Figure 14).

Figure 13.

A shipment of pigs to Yugoslavia by sea.

Figure 14.

An advertisement from the pig breeders gazette.

The year of 1928 proved to be an eventful one for the pig industry. The Gazette described the setting up of a Pig Industry Council as “one of the most important events in the history of the pig breeding industry”. The council’s chairman was Mr. Ernest Debenham, a long-serving member of the NPBA. The Gazette pronounced: “It would be foolish to expect the council to make pig production consistently profitable regardless of economic and political factors. But we are hopeful that they will not only focus attention on the weakness of the present haphazard systems of breeding, feeding and marketing and submit recommendations for reorganisation, but also see those recommendations carried into effect” [5].


6. Welcome to the Wessex

On the domestic front, the Wessex Saddleback Society joined the NPBA on January 1, 1929. “Never short of a comment, the NPBA Gazette declared: ‘The actual process of fusion is proceeding with only the usual little difficulties to be expected in view of our new friends’ unfamiliarity with NPBA principles although there is no doubt that the Wessex members will find these rules just as easy to work as the older members of the NPBA.”

The editorial comment continued: ‘The NPBA is out to encourage the breeding of pigs which are economical to feed, prolific, of good quality and which will yield the maximum of prime parts and minimum of waste, whether for bacon or pork. Despite suggestions to the contrary from sadly misinformed quarters, there is no preference shewn for any one breed. The association never has, and it is hoped, never will encourage inter-breed jealousies, but despite its five breeds it does encourage inter-breed competition.” (Figure 15).

Figure 15.

A Wessex saddleback sow.

Carcase competitions were also started by the association in the late 1920s with the results being related to the various breeds as producers became increasingly aware of the importance of introducing standards of production and improving the quality of the end product. Breeders had to begin to reconcile the need for a quality product to be sold to the consumer with the requirements of a pig that had to lead a life outdoors.


7. Imported pig meat threatens domestic production

The 1930s saw a major switch of emphasis in pig production in Great Britain. Bacon was on everyone’s lips and the official word was that the quality of the home product had to be improved with attention to grading. Denmark was well established as the major supplier of bacon to the UK market accounting for more than 60 per cent of all imports in 1933. The jubilee issue of the Pig Breeders’ Annual in 1934 featured a message from the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Walter Elliot. “I would like to emphasize,” he said, “what I consider to be one of the most urgent needs - attention to the quality of our home output of bacon. It must be our firm intention that the quality of our product shall be and shall remain ahead of that of our foreign competitors and therefore we must start at the right end - with the raw material, the pig. I am pleased to note that, during the past contract period; there has been a steady increase in the proportion of pigs in the higher grades.

“But there is still plenty of room for improvement and here the National Pig Breeders’ Association has a most important function to perform. From now on we are going to need all our resources in breeding stock of proved performance as well as all the assistance we can get in the dissemination among producers of the best methods of breeding and feeding for bacon. Only so will it be possible to hold and consolidate the position we have already gained.”

A key proposal was the introduction of a National mark for Bacon and Pork. “How soon will it be before a workable National Mark scheme is evolved to apply to imported bacon and pig-meat generally? Upwards of £43,000,000 was spent on imported bacon; £5,400,000 for hams and £2,500,000 for fresh and frozen pork in 1929. How much of the imported frozen pork is turned into bacon and sold as “home-cured”, thus deceiving the housewife into the belief that she is buying an article that has been bred, fed and cured in this country? … is high time this question of misleading the public with a foreign article is tackled in the interests of home producers” [3].

This was the first of several attempts over the years to improve the international competitiveness of the British Pig Industry in the face of competition from imported pig meat.


8. “Pig for Victory” the role of NPBA in world war II

The Second World War stopped this development before it could thrive and the idea was not revived in the 1940s. The war and the rationing of feedstuffs during the subsequent years did, however, give a boost to the membership of the association following the formation of its Small Pig Keepers’ Council to encourage backyard pig keeping to use kitchen waste and increase the number of pigs kept throughout the country. The scheme was set up by the NPBA and the Ministry of Agriculture, with Alec Hobson as secretary of the council. A provision was introduced that registered producers should get a slightly larger feed allowance than commercial producers - so the membership of the association grew to more than 11,000 by 1953/54. The end of rationing naturally reversed the trend and membership began to fall away (Figure 16).

Figure 16.

Pig clubs were established during the second world war to boost pork production.

Most of the pedigree breeds that we still have today had a significant role in mainstream commercial production until the beginning of the 1930’s. Each breed had been developed with particular characteristics to suit a regional market or production system. During the 1930’s the popularity of the Middle White and the Berkshire breeds in Great Britain declined considerably. Until then they had been popular for crossing to produce both bacon and pork. For bacon production, they were however replaced to a considerable extent by Large Whites either purebred or used on Wessex and Essex sows. During war time and afterwards up to 1952 the Wessex and Essex breeds strengthened their position considerably aided by their reputation for hardiness and foraging. From 1952 onwards, however, they also lost ground to the Large White. Table 1 gives a snapshot of sows registrations in 1954 and Table 2 shows boars licenced in 1954.

BreedSow registrations% of total
Large White25,28959%
Large Black19265%
Middle White2080.5%

Table 1.

Sows registered in 1954.

BreedBoars licenced% of total
Large White16,75176%
Large Black2691.%
Middle White670.3%
Gloucestershire Old Spots440.2%
Long White Lop Eared290.1%
Yorkshire Blue and White3
Dorset Gold tip2
Lincolnshire Curly Coat2
Oxford Sandy and Black1

Table 2.

Boars licenced in 1954.


9. An early casualty

In Northern Ireland, the predominant breed until 1930 was the native Large White Ulster, a breed particularly suited to the traditional bacon curing industry, where pigs were killed on the farm. It was however thin-skinned and very susceptible to damage when transported alive: it was therefore unsuitable for the Wiltshire curing industry which was established from 1934 onwards. The Large White was expanded first for the Wiltshire trade and later for all bacon curing. By 1939 the changeover was almost complete helped along by the Ministry of Agriculture’s decision to only pay grant premiums for Large White boars in Northern Ireland whereas all breeds of boar were eligible for the scheme in Great Britain. This led to the extinction of the breed (Figure 17).

Figure 17.

The Large White Ulster whose fate was sealed by an official decision to withdraw grants.


10. Official policy to focus on a single type of pig

In 1955 with the end of rationing and a return to free markets, the government became concerned about the international competitiveness of UK pig producers compared with potential sources of imports of pork and bacon. A committee under Sir Harold Howitt was established to “advise in what ways pig production would best be developed particularly in regard to general breeding policy….”

The committee published its report in October 1955 with far-reaching consequences for the future of British pig breeds.

In the first place we have formed the view that one of the main handicaps facing the British pig industry today is the diversity of the type of pig which is found throughout the country. The pig industry will in our view only make real progress when it concentrates on a few main types and - if it were at any time found possible – on a single type of pig for commercial production.”

The committee went on to identify three breeds, the Large White, Landrace and Welsh as the foundations of the modern pig industry. “It is from these three breeds that we would hope to see developed through intensive progeny testing in the coming years the improved bacon pig which would provide boars for use by nearly all commercial breeders for bacon and pork. The importance and urgency of this task cannot be overstated” (Figure 18) [6].

Figure 18.

The Howitt report which recommended using only a single breed of pig.

11. More breeds are lost

So it was that the systems of progeny testing, testing stations, nucleus herds and AI stations envied all around the world were established. Naturally the three breeds identified by the committee went from strength to strength but for the rest began a long period of decline. In less than 15 years the number of breeds listed in Table 2 above had been reduced by one-third. Four of those breeds, The Cumberland, The Dorset Gold Tip, The Yorkshire Blue and White and the Lincolnshire Curly Coat were lost forever and two breeds the Essex and the Wessex Saddleback were amalgamated into a single breed the British Saddleback (Figures 19 and 20).

Figure 19.

The Lincolnshire curly coat, the last native pig breed to be lost in Britain.

Figure 20.

The Essex pig which was amalgamated with the Wessex to form the British saddleback.

12. The tide begins to turn

By 1973 the decline of all the traditional breeds, Berkshire, British Saddleback, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Large Black, Middle White and Tamworth was almost complete. Breeding populations had fallen to dangerously low levels. They were at best curiosities to be displayed at county shows. Only a handful of die-hard breeders represented by the Minor Breeds Committee of the BPA struggled to maintain the dwindling populations with little or no help from outside. A turning point was reached with the establishment of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in 1973. The need to conserve all of Britain’s unique genetic heritage was recognised and gradually the decline of the traditional pedigree breeds was arrested.

For a while, this was thought to be a sufficient goal in its own right but increasing public awareness of the need for conservation and a sea change in consumers attitudes to mass-produced food began to offer new opportunities for these Traditional Breeds to return to the marketplace.

13. Four more breeds join NPBA

As the industry returned to peacetime production, more breed societies became members of the association. The Large Black, Gloucestershire Old Spots and Welsh breeds all joined the ranks and in 1967 the Essex and Wessex breeds were merged to create the British Saddleback (Figures 2124).

Figure 21.

The Gloucestershire old spots.

Figure 22.

The large black.

Figure 23.

The welsh.

Figure 24.

The British saddleback.

All of these breeds were then, by reason of NPBA membership, subjected to the association’s official standards of excellence drawn up to ensure that animals that would be used to produce the stock for commercial producers were all of a recognised quality.

14. The beginning of the modern and traditional breed split

The emphasis during the 1950s continued to be on the white pig with the curers objecting to the problems that coloured breeds caused when it came to removing pigment from the skin. At one stage the NPBA made a vigorous protest at the proposal that coloured pigs should be penalised to the extent of 6d a score against the whites. The NPBA, however, did not adopt a sustained protective posture in defence of the coloured breeds. The association, following its principle of the improvement of the national pig herd, saw the requirements of the commercial market as paramount. Market forces were allowed to take their course; some would have preferred to see a little more attention paid to the maintenance of the less favoured breeds.

15. The arrival of the landrace

The continued pressure for improvement inevitably led to longing glances across the North Sea where the Danish Landraces had gained a big reputation for bacon production. The British pig was not, said some, meeting the requirements of the bacon trade and fresh blood was needed. A small group of producers decided they would import the Danish Landrace and establish the breed in Britain and a formal application was made to the Ministry of Agriculture for an official importation. A limited number of Landrace had already found their way into this country but a bigger shipment was needed to establish the breed (Figure 25).

Figure 25.

The first imports of landrace pigs at Cambridge Airport.

The Ministry refused to allow the importation unless the whole affair was administered by a broad-based organisation with the experience to set and enforce breed standards. The NPBA was the obvious choice. So the Ministry asked the association to arrange the importation and distribution of the pigs. The stock was eventually brought in from Sweden as the Danes had spoilt their record by sending pigs to Canada, which did not perform well in Canadian testing schemes. For some years the recipients of the imported stock maintained their own herd book but in 1978 the Landrace Breed Society merged with the NPBA.

16. The first progeny testing station

The sale of those first Landrace pigs was highly profitable for the NPBA. But the Ministry had imposed a condition that the money should be used for the benefit of the whole pig industry. In response to this, the association took another step that had a profound effect on the “improvement of the breed of swine”.

The NPBA Producer Testing and Research Co. Ltd. was given the profit from the Landrace sales to begin the first progeny testing station. A prime mover in the creation of a progeny scheme was the association’s secretary Robert Johnson who had spent some time in Denmark and seen the advantages that the controlled assessment of pigs could bring to the industry. The NPBA had wanted to introduce such a scheme for improvement in this country; and the Landrace windfall provided the finance.

The aim of the association was to relate the test results back to the pedigree standards of excellence and so into the commercial herds. The Selby test station, established in 1952, was to form the basis of a National Progeny Testing Scheme. A National scheme was finally established by the Government three years later, funded by a levy of “1d a score” on all pigs certified at liveweight and deadweight centres. The total cost, in 1955, of this national scheme inspired by the original NPBA test centre was more than half a million pounds (Figures 26 and 27).

Figure 26.

The Selby test station.

Figure 27.

Testing pens at the Selby test station.

Breed improvement in those early days before computers was achieved by the skill of pedigree breeders, with an eye for good stock, selecting within their own herds and then testing their animals in open competition at livestock shows and carcase competitions. This knowledge and experience were passed on from father to son over generations (Figure 28).

Figure 28.

Former British pig association chairman Robert Overend MBE with three generations of pedigree pig breeders.

The government’s role was to licence all boars that were to be sold for breeding and all these boars had to be pedigree registered.

The need for the independent management of the National Testing Scheme led to the formation of the Pig Industry Development Authority (PIDA) on which the association had extensive representation. And, in turn, PIDA became the nucleus of the wider-ranging Meat and Livestock Commission launched in 1968. Ultrasonic testing on live animals was introduced and as part of this programme the highest indexing boars off test were offered to public AI centres to raise the overall performance of the national herd (Figure 29).

Figure 29.

Test certificates awarded for performance at the Selby test Centre.

During this time several new pedigree breeds were imported to the UK. These breeds were incorporated into the national breeding programme and selected under British testing regimes. The Hampshire was the first to be introduced followed by the Duroc and most recently the Pietrain.

17. The emergence of breeding company pyramids

In the 1960’s and 70’s the introduction of breeding pyramids designed to take advantage of hybrid vigour led to the establishment of pig breeding companies based on nucleus herds of top quality pedigree pigs. The companies talked about multi-crosses and synthetic pigs and made a determined sales bid for the breeding stock business of commercial pig producers. The 1974/5 MLC Pig Improvement Scheme Yearbook gives details of test results from over 80 independent pedigree herds as well as listing 28 breeding companies carrying out their own testing programmes. The NPBA sought to embrace this new force rather than fight it. A liaison committee was formed leading to the launching of a breeding companies group when the Association of Breeding Companies merged with the NPBA in 1978. This merger of interests, it was reasoned, allowed pedigree breeders to benefit from the advances of the companies and gave the association a broader platform in its dealings with the government.

During the 1980’s these British breeding companies enjoyed great success both at home and worldwide. Companies such as Cotswold Pig Development Company, Masterbreeders, Northern Pig Development and Pig Improvement Company dominated their domestic markets and became major exporters of breeding stock. The success of these companies may be in part attributed to the competitive nature of their home market. The lack of interest in co-operatives among British farmers in the 1980’s meant that breeding stock suppliers were continually competing for business from a large number of medium-sized producers. Competition drives improvement and these companies were extremely competitive. Another factor contributing to their success, especially in international markets was the high health status of their nucleus herds and of the United Kingdom as an island nation free from Foot and Mouth Disease and Classical Swine Fever. Freedom from these diseases gave British breeding stock exporters access to international markets that remained closed to breeders in Europe where Foot and Mouth was not eradicated until the late 1980’s with vaccination ending in 1991. In the 1980’s these British companies became the suppliers of choice for Asian pig producers as the region experienced record levels of economic growth. Pedigree breeders also played a key role in these exports. The Tates herd of Large White pedigree pigs established in 1959 in Caxton Cambridgeshire exported breeding stock to more than 60 countries around the globe (Figures 30 and 31).

Figure 30.

The 1980’s saw a surge of export of British breeding pigs.

Figure 31.

More British pigs being exported by air.

1991 saw the rebranding of the National Pig Breeders Association which was relaunched as the British Pig Association recognising the importance of a prosperous commercial production sector to a pig breeding industry increasingly dominated by pig breeding companies. The UK domestic market demand for leaner meat drove the breeding policies of these breeding companies and the larger pedigree breeders. The sale of pork “skin on” meant that trimming excess fat was not an option and so leaner pigs were bred for consumer preference as well as for increased efficiency of production and profitability. These breeding policies meant that British breeding companies were ideally placed to exploit changing demand in the US swine production industry in the early 1990’s which saw vast numbers of British breeding pigs crossing the Atlantic. This booming export trade peaked with the restocking of the Netherlands pig industry after the Classical Swine Fever outbreak of 1997. In his acceptance speech for the 1993 David Black Award, a pig industry award for lifetime achievement, Dr. John Webb predicted that the pig breeding industry would consolidate in the same way as the poultry industry and that worldwide there would only be two or three major breeding companies which would be international conglomerates with genetic resources and breeding programmes linked around the world. A quarter of a century later that is what has happened and all the UK-based breeding companies are now part of multi-national structures that choose to supply international customers from a range of different countries. As the UK has left the European Union exports of breeding stock to and via EU countries have declined and exports of breeding stock to other major markets in Asia and North America have to an extent been replaced with exports of frozen semen.

UK breeders have pioneered the development of new techniques for freezing porcine semen and have used this technology to export British genetics around the world. This trade has been boosted by the African Swine Fever pandemic as breeders seek to rebuild herds without the risk of moving live animals. Since 2010 shipments of frozen semen have become commonplace with exports to Canada, China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Nigeria, Philippines, and USA.

18. The pig industry crisis and new production methods

As the boom in exports of lean genotypes from the UK drew to a close a major change was happening in UK production. The global slump in the pig meat prices in 1998 created a crisis in the market so that even the most efficient UK producers were losing money. At the same time, the introduction of a ban on tethers and close-confinement stalls for breeding sows was estimated to cost the industry £220 m adding £1.50 per pig to the cost of production [7].

Outdoor production systems were being introduced in the 1990’s based on the need to reduce capital investment and coupled with a demand from the consumer for increased standards of animal welfare this resulted in new methods of husbandry. However, the ban on stalls and tethers described above which was introduced in the UK some 14 years ahead 2013 deadline for the rest of the European Union, forced producers to change their production systems very rapidly and breeders to speed up the development of genotypes suitable for these new systems (Figure 32).

Figure 32.

High welfare indoor production introduced at the end of the 20th century.

19. Low capital cost extensive systems

The need to reduce capital investment and maintain high levels of welfare also led to the re-invention of outdoor pig keeping on a massive scale. The face of the countryside has been changed with the development of extensive production units for thousands of sows.

Approximately 40% of UK sows are now kept in extensive systems and give birth outdoors. This in turn has led to the development of new genotypes bred specifically for this method of outdoor production. It would be a mistake to think that somehow this is a return to the 1950s (Figure 33). Outdoor production systems are large-scale operations as shown in Figure 34.

Figure 33.

Today’s outdoor production is not a return to the 1950’s.

Figure 34.

Today’s outdoor production is on a very large scale.

The pressures brought to bear by global prices and domestic legislation were exacerbated at the turn of the century by outbreaks of exotic disease. Classical Swine Fever struck in 2000 in the major pig-producing region of East Anglia. Then just weeks after the end of the CSF outbreak the country was hit with Foot and Mouth in February 2001.

The result of these catastrophes was a decline of 40% in the UK national breeding herd from 1998 to 2007. Most of the casualties were small and medium-sized family farms, a trend that continues today with the latest five-year figures published by AHDB in their 2019 report showing a decline of 30% in herds with 100–249 breeding sows.

By contrast, in the aftermath of the 2001 FMD epidemic, there has been a boom in the number of very small-scale pig breeders. Official statistics show that whilst the sow population has declined the number of pig holdings has not followed the same trend with 10,440 holdings in 2002 and 10,539 holdings in 2019 [8]. Many of these new small-scale producers are keeping the more traditional native pig breeds reversing the decline that began in the 1950’s. Table 3 contains figures published in the UK National Breeds Inventory which show that from 2002 to 2008 the majority of traditional native pig breeds doubled their populations. These numbers have declined following the economic crisis from 2009 onwards [9].

Breed name20022008% Increase
British Saddleback414864109%
Gloucestershire Old Spots6281328111%
Large Black377366−3%
Middle White23339871%
Oxford Sandy and Black129373189%

Table 3.

Breeding sow population of some native breeds 2002–2008.

So we see three trends in the production of pork in the UK in the 21st century.

  • The intensification of production into increasingly larger herds as part of vertically integrated companies.

  • The increase in large scale high welfare production and in particular the return to extensive production with commercial sow herds spending their lives outdoors in low capital cost systems

  • The increase in micro-producers with herds of less than 5 sows producing pork from native breeds that are classified as at risk of extinction supplying niche markets.

This polarisation of production systems has seen pig breeders and producers divided into two very different camps with different markets and ideals but there are still areas of research and development that have benefits for both sectors.

20. The introduction of the Oxford Sandy & Black and the Mangalitza

In 2002 the Oxford Sandy & Black pig joined the BPA. This native breed was saved from extinction in 1985 by a small group of breeders who formed a breed the Oxford Sandy & Black Breed Society. Since joining the Association it has become on of the most popular of the traditional breeds (Figure 35). In 2007 a further breed was introduced from Europe. The arrival of the Mangalitza increased the number of pedigree breeds managed by the British Pig Association to fourteen. The Mangalitza breed was another example of a native breed saved from extinction by dedicated breeders and which is now enjoying a renaissance. A small population in Britain is used for the production of high-quality charcuterie products for niche markets (Figure 36).

Figure 35.

The Oxford Sandy & Black saved from extinction.

Figure 36.

The most recent breed to be established in UK is the Mangalitza.

21. UK pig breeding research

The UK has been a leader in research and development in pig breeding since Sir John Hammond was the first recipient of the David Black award in 1960. In recent years the two major research centres at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge and the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh have been key partners in the global PiGMaP project launched in 1990 to produce “A molecular and physical map of the pig genome”. This work has led to a much greater understanding of the pig genome with and the latest data for pigs show that 33,540 QTLs have been reported representing 704 different traits and 288 identified genes. Genetic correlations are available between 4278 traits [10].

In 2018 the release of results from a three-country consortium, led by the UK, has produced pigs completely resistant to Porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome (PRRS). PRRS is the world’s most costly pig disease causing death and multiple problems with severe welfare implications. The annual global cost of the disease is likely to be more than £1.75 billion in the US and Europe alone [11].

The scientists, mostly based at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, focused their research on a very small section of the pig genome that acts as a receptor to the PRRS virus. They used gene editing techniques to delete the DNA so that the virus could not ‘attach’ to the pig. The result was total genetic resistance.

Gene editing techniques developed by Professor Mike McGrew of the Roslin Institute could also be used to develop new methods of genebanking in the future using primordial germ cells [12]. The technique offers the possibility of biobanking for species where traditional methods of embryo collection and storage are not possible and he has received the Marsh Christian Award from the Rare Breeds Survival Trust for his work in this area.

Not all scientific breakthroughs come from international research projects and the transfer of science into commercially viable techniques which can benefit the pig industry relies on the involvement of producers. One such example already mentioned above is the development of techniques for successful freezing and thawing of porcine semen under farm conditions. Thanks to the perseverance of a small family business in Northern Ireland, Deerpark Pedigree Pigs, frozen semen can now be transported around the world and produce conception rates on a par with short shelf-life chilled semen. Not only does this technique allow genetics to be moved without the need for expensive and risky shipments of live animals it also offers the possibility of building genebanks for pig breeds. Since 2002 the British Pig Association has been working on a genebank with frozen semen for native UK pig breeds and the project now has more than 6000 doses of semen from 100 different boars in storage [11].

22. Summary

For more than 600 years pigs were farmed in Britain in the woods and forests before they became more confined from the 13th century onwards. Importations of breeds from around the world and a great interest in animal breeding led to the development of a large number of native breeds. At the end of the 19th century, the process of formalising breeds in herdbooks and breed improvement began with the establishment of the National Pig Breeders Association in 1884. Over the next century, British breeding pigs were exported to all corners of the globe. In particular, the British Large White or Yorkshire pig has been used as the basis for every commercial industry from Australia to Zambia. At home, the great diversity of pig breeds inherited from the early 20th century was put at grave risk by government and industry policies that focussed on a single type of pig for meat production. The 1970’s saw increased awareness of the importance of conservation and efforts began to reverse this trend towards extinction for the British native pig breeds. Today the UK maintains 11 native pig breeds whose survival depends on supplying niche markets whilst mainstream production has returned to its roots with more than 40% of the breeding herd living outdoors driven by consumer demand for higher animal welfare standards. Prospects for the survival of these breeds have been greatly increased as result of new techniques for the freezing and thawing of porcine semen. Although, the UK is no longer the major supplier of breeding stock to the world it is still home to several international breeding companies and research institutes involved in mapping the pig genome and exploiting these new technologies to develop disease-resistant pigs or new techniques for conservation. The lasting legacy of the United Kingdom to today’s domestic pig is the British Large White. Exported around the world from the 19th century it forms the basis for all modern highly efficient pig production systems producing quality protein for an ever-growing world population.s


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Written By

Marcus Bates

Submitted: 08 November 2021 Reviewed: 09 February 2022 Published: 31 May 2022