Did you know the Essex Pig is fighting back from extinction?
Known for its handsome black and white markings with a thick white stripe down the top of the shoulders, front legs and part of the abdomen, the Essex pig was not an uncommon sight in the county until the 1950s.
The Essex pig was popular with farmers for its general hardiness, compact but sturdy build and good-natured demeanor. It was particularly popular in the years around World War II as it retained its natural foraging ability. The pig itself has been around for several centuries and is likely descended from non-transformed breeds that have existed on various farms around the county for generations.
Interestingly, the bloodlines formerly known primarily as Old Essex were improved in the 19th century when Charles Western, 1st Baron Western, introduced Italian pigs into the breed, who was of county origin and whose family seat was at Rivenhall Place . After touring Italy he decided to cross Italian boars with his Essex sows. As a testament to the superiority of this refined bloodline, his pigs won first prize at the Royal Agricultural Show shortly thereafter.
It may be difficult to understand why the breed declined so rapidly in the mid-20th century, especially given that many small farmers were interested in this native species. Aside from the fact that many traditional breeds have been rapidly disappearing from the UK in recent times, a special report was produced in the UK in 1955 which highlighted the best breeds that British farmers should focus on producing – and the Essex pig did not belong to these races. It has been suggested that it is better to focus on a smaller pool of different breeds than on a wide range of pig varieties.
Almost overnight the Essex pig suffered and its reputation for its various good qualities was quickly forgotten. Soon the breed seemed to disappear entirely, disappearing into the pages of old, dusty farming books from the last century. In fact, the population decline was so great that the breed was declared extinct.
But this little pig is as strong-willed as the county that founded it, and the Essex pig lives on to this day. The Tamworth pig is widely considered to be Britain’s rarest pig, with fewer than a few hundred breeding pairs still alive. However, there is strong competition for this title as there are even fewer of the Essex Pig. Some of these breeds can be found in neighboring Suffolk where Jamie Oliver’s close friend Jimmy Doherty raises a small population of the Essex pig breed.
Another encouraging point is the fact that it was this local bloodline in combination with the Wessex pig that produced the British Saddleback Pig, which retains the color of our own local breed. In 1967 the Saddleback Society was formed.
Although the British saddleback is also classified as rare and endangered, it is encouraging to see that Essex pig bloodlines are still present in livestock today. Certainly the Essex pig and its offspring have a very special role to play, not only in local history but also in Britain’s traditional livestock breeds.