For the past three years we’ve lost potential sales of weaners as a handful of people would only take gilts, but in the past few months demand for weaner boars has almost disappeared thanks to increasingly irrational and paranoid views about boars.
We’ve had people tell us boars are too dangerous, too vicious, too savage, too aggressive, too untrustworthy, and too unpredictable for all but the most experienced stockman/woman to keep.
When I ask what this view is based up, it almost invariably comes back to “a friend told me”, “I heard it on a web forum”, “everyone knows” or “I saw it in the media”.
And sure enough, if you visit the River Cottage forum’s pig section (which most of our potential buyers seem to do), you can read:
“…they are extremely strong, will do their best to destroy any type of housing you provide for them, can be abit touchy, and can potentially do you an awful lot of damage. A chap not far from here had both his srms bitten off by an angry boar a couple of years ago.”
“…i agree with VSS boars can be dangerous. Need strong pens, just incase.
“The two we have at work are lovely chaps, but i wouldn’t trust them…”
“…be warned if thinking of getting a boar they can be very difficult to contain if they want to get out!”
“…any boar no matter how tame shouldnt be trusted fully, owning a boar is not something to be taken lightly.”
I’m deliberately leaving some of the context out here, as these are the words that most people focus on, but I’ll return to this in a moment. (And there are similar views on other forums.)
Back in 2006, the BBC reported that a north Wales farmer was recovering in hospital after he was mauled by a 47-stone (298 kg) pig.
The boar apparently “pinned him against a tractor and bit him on the legs, back and left arm. One bite nearly severed an artery.”
In 2001, another BBC report reported that a prison worker needed 89 stitches after a Berkshire boar attacked him on a prison farm.
It all sound tremendously frightening and dangerous, doesn’t it?
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But what our potential buyers and pig keepers are overlooking is the context.
There is a vast difference between a pig, of either sex, kept for finishing from 8-10 weeks up to 24-30 weeks and a mature, full-grown animal.
Our 10-week old Berkshire weaners are around 20-25kg in weight when they go to their new owners and finish up around 60kg as porkers slaughtered at 24-26 weeks (depending on feed and sex-boars grow faster).
Even a cutter taken on to 28-30 weeks tops out at around 80kg.
A novice pig keeper who pays attention to their animals, makes the effort to learn handling skills and practices good husbandry should have no problems in handling a pig—whether gilt or boar—at this size and age.
If they are stressed or surprised, immature pigs of either sex can bite and it will hurt. It may even draw blood.
If you’re silly enough to try to hand feed them, they may even chomp a finger tip off.
But that does not make them inherently vicious or savage. They’re just animals with instinctive reflexes, a strong jaw action, and a tendency to scoff feed without hesitation.
The risks are further reduced by choosing well-bred animals from sires and dams with good temperaments, and by socialising weaners to their keepers (and vice versa).
We’ve supplied weaner boars to several novice pig keepers, none of whom have had a problem and all of whom have enjoyed the experience. (They’ve also enjoyed eating the pork.)
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When I try to explain this to a certain kind of prospective buyer, their reaction is that I’m trying to feed them a line.
“You would say that, wouldn’t you. You need to sell them…”
Then the potential buyers tell me they only want gilts and, in two cases, told me I should breed more gilts if the demand was for them and not boars.
Say what? Do these people have no idea how nature works?
What’s even more intriguing is that several of the people who’ve rejected boars for fattening, then start on about their plans to buy a gilt or two for breeding.
They won’t buy a pair of weaner boars to fatten because they’re “difficult and dangerous”, but they are prepared to take on a gilt, take her up to maturity, have her serviced (I presume by AI as boars are “too dangerous”), and then manage her and her litter.
This is more than a little strange as a mature sow, particularly with a litter of piglets, can be much more difficult to handle than an immature boar.
Mature gilts and sows are bigger and heavier, so are more likely to seriously injure their keeper than any young boar, while sows that have just had their first litter can be very unpredictable.
Even a good-natured sow on her third or fourth litter can be very dangerous if she feels her piglets are threatened in any way.
Finally, we have the mature boar himself.
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Mature boars have the potential to be extremely dangerous. They are big (Graham, our Berkshire boar weighs around 225kg or 500lb), they are strong, they have sharp trotters, they have big teeth and tusks, and powerful jaw muscles.
The pig keeper should never stand between a boar (or a large sow) and something they want to rub against, whether a boulder, a tree, a fence post, a tractor or a truck. Even standing between a boar and a sow, who both want a rub, is not recommended.
The pig keeper should always be alert when around a mature boar.
The pig keeper needs to know when a sow is in heat and when the boar is interested (never get in between the two), they need to know when the boar is disciplining his herd (and stand back no matter how bad it looks to human eyes), and they need to know when two boars really are going to go for it (and retreat to a very robust place of safety).
The pig keeper should never be tempted to hand feed pigs, particularly not mature boars and sows.
They won’t mean to bite your fingers or hand off, but adult pigs have big mouths, big teeth and big muscles while humans have relatively small, relatively soft hands.
That said, the pig keeper must not neglect to walk around, touch and handle a mature boar—respectfully and carefully but never nervously.
The boar must have a postive association with the pig keeper, who must be seen as the purveyor of all things nice and good: ear rubs, belly rubs, back scratches, food, water, bedding, wallows and sows.
It’s exactly the same with a working dog, a stallion, a ram, a bull, or any other large and powerful animal. You’re not so much the boss, as the fixer, provider and rewarder.
Having said all that, there is also breeding, conditioning and environment to consider.
An ill-bred boar of uncertain heritage, kept in poor conditions, and either unaccustomed to close interaction with humans or ill-treated by them is a positive menace.
A boar from good lines and treated well but with an aggressive streak is a positive menace.
I’d never keep either and I’d never breed from either.
Instead, we’ve always looked for temperament first in a boar and only if he’s good natured do we consider his other qualities.
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Our first breeding boar, Ginger, was a very laid back Tamworth who fitted in well with us, so we were happy to sell him to another family who were starting in pig breeding.
If he’d been even slightly frisky—as many Tamworths are—he’d only have gone to an experienced breeder or been turned into sausages.
Even so, Ginger still injured the Other Half when he brushed past her at feeding time.
A tusk caught her leg and left a nasty gouge, but that’s the reality of life with large livestock—they walk on people, squash people, gore people and injure people without intent.
It’s why there’s a vast difference, not between boars and gilts, but between young pigs taken to pork or cutter weight and large, mature adult pigs of either sex.
Novice pig keepers should not be worried about taking on weaner boars.
They should be worried about scaling up to adult animals for breeding before their pig husbandry skills are sufficiently developed and tested by young animals.
Quite frankly, if the intention is to keep a pair of pigs for fattening, then there’s simply no sense in focusing only on gilts.
Nature ensures a roughly 50:50 breakdown in the sexes so potential buyers could (and do) wait a long time for gilts.
Enough time, in fact, to have taken a pair of young boars to killing weight and be enjoying their pork.
And a final thought to dwell on: of the 60-plus pigs we’ve kept, there have been only two that were difficult and therefore automatic candidates for slaughter. Both were gilts.
Gus is a 17-week-old boar and weighs about 45kg. The trough beside him is one-metre long. He’ll be about 80kg at 26-28 weeks. (Gus is likely to become a stud boar should he work out.) Gus and his sisters are relatively easy to handle and will continue to be through to slaughter weight. Having said that, one of the gilts is a biter and needs to be watched. But some buyers would prefer her to a “dangerous” boar.
Graham will be three years old in July. He weighs 225kg, which is small by boar standards as Berkshires are a more compact breed. Landraces and the like go to well over 300kg. For reference, the blue electric fencing stake is one-metre high. Graham is a laid-back, calm and easy going boar, but he still needs skill, care and respect as he’s big, strong and ruled by his instincts. He’s not dangerous, but he has the potential to be.