Lauren Smith at Forest Coal Pit Farm on raising rare breed acorn-fed pigs in Wales
Think you need to head to Spain to find acorn-fed pork? Meet the farmers rearing rare-breed pigs on acorns in the fertile woods of the Brecon Beacons in Wales.
Lauren, you rarely hear of acorn-fed pigs outside of the ‘pannage pork’ of England’s New Forest and Spain’s Iberico ham. Why Wales?
After many years of working in London grew tiresome, my partner Kyle and I decided to swap our city life to follow our dream of running a farm. We got involved in agriculture because we wanted to farm in a sustainable way that leaves the planet in a better place than we found it.
90% of the UK’s pork is reared indoors and only three percent of pigs will spend their whole lives outside. We knew we could never compete with the scale of large commercial farms, and nor would we want to. It’s really important for us to not compromise on the high standards we think pigs should be raised.
A 20-acre plot came up near the rural Welsh town of Abergavenny and we jumped at the chance – although it needed a lot of work! It took a year and most of the local village’s help to transform an old sheep farm into fertile land suitable for raising pigs on its natural woodland habitat.
You’re clearly very passionate about sustainability and welfare. What makes your pigs different?
Our small herd of Large Black, Duroc and Mangatam rare breed pigs are raised entirely outdoors on our farm’s natural woodland in the Brecon Beacons national park, famous for its wild mountains and beautiful forests.
These special breeds of pigs are uniquely suited to living their entire lives outside and up to a third of their diet is made up of natural foraged foods found on the farm such as hazelnuts, blackberries, apples and acorns.
The pigs roam freely and even sometimes escape! They’re very good at hiding. All this running around and exercise also makes such a difference to the flavour of the meat which is deep and rich, whereas mass-produced indoor-reared pork is quite pale and insipid in comparison.
Is it really true that your pigs are rarer than the siberian tiger?
Absolutely, yes. The Large Black pig is Britain’s only remaining all-black pig breed. There are only around 250 breeding sows left and it’s known to be rarer than the Siberian tiger. They’re very good are foraging for food and are a warm, friendly and relaxed pig.
You’re also doing some interesting things with grass, which is unusual for a pig farm. What are the benefits?
Kyle and I cultivate a range of deep-rooting grasses so the pigs can enjoy a varied diet. Some have great nutritional benefits and some are really hardy so they can withstand the pigs trampling on it.
We really wanted to avoid a mono-culture of crops and bring a diverse range of sustainable feeds to the pigs. We believe this is one of the best things we could do for their welfare and to produce a really flavoursome and high quality pork.
When we started four years ago we knew wanted to raise pigs on grass, but we didn’t know if it was even possible. After years of experimenting with different grasses and crop rotations, we’re rearing the highest number of pigs we’ve ever had – despite one of the wettest autumns we’ve had for 20 years.
Are there environmental benefits?
There’s a great guy called Fred at Gothelney Farm in Somerset who is really vocal about pig grass and carbon sequestration. That’s been really good to learn about, especially as were all wanting to become more carbon neutral, sustainable and impact beneficial for the environment.
We found a grass snake recently and we’ve noticed more and more wildlife coming back. It’s great to find that there’s real biodiversity. We’ve left bits to go wild!
Which restaurants do you supply?
The excellent Angel Hotel and the traditional Hunters Moon Inn, both in Abergavenny. The Kilpeck Inn, just over the border in England and Edinburgh Food Studio along with various ad hoc places. We work with everyone individually to provide what they need.
And what do the chefs you supply say about your pork?
Chefs say that the fat of our pigs raised entirely outdoors makes gorgeous crackling. The rich colour of the meat is the real point of difference they notice too. It took a year to find the perfect mix of rare-breeds that had the best characteristics of an outdoor-loving pig with its roots in outdoor foraging, with excellent fat levels, marbling and a terrific flavour. Chefs starting calling our pork ‘Welsh Black’ and the name has stuck.
What do chefs do with your pork?
Some chefs will do a classic Sunday lunch roast leg joint at a pub. At the Edinburgh Food Studio they take a lot of hearts and heads to make very exquisite and exciting things. We’ve had some chefs make pigs ear crackling dust, which is very addictive.
Forest Coal Pit Farm is small-scale farm rearing rare-breed and free-range pigs near Abergavenny in South Wales run by Lauren Smith and Kyle Holford. The farm offer nationwide delivery and farm experience days.