Meet the couple behind the Haverhill wild boar farm
PUBLISHED: 12:42 22 August 2017
Sarah Lucy Brown
Tessa Allingham goes down to the wild woods near Haverhill to see the people – and pigs – behind the New England Boar Company
Bubbles and Squeak are as inseparable as a perfectly-clichéd pairing. Squeak is a tiny, brown-striped miracle of camouflage who trots and bounces, a playful Pixar bundle, among the broken branches and shrubbery of the woodland floor. At just a few weeks old, she demonstrates an early ability at boar-ish rooting (they can do this from day one, I’m told), pushing her still-dainty snout into the damp leaf matter to turn over a molehill of earth, no doubt finding something tasty to snack on in the process.
Any attempt at straying gets short shrift, a stern grunt from Bubbles bringing the piglet back to peep with big brown Hollywood eyes from between her mother’s legs.
The snap of a stick heralds the arrival of dad who has hauled himself out of his twig-canopied lair to assess the threat we pose. Buster is aptly named. He is 200kg of pumped-up front-end muscle and swagger, and though he’s too young, at three years old, to boast the handsome pair of tusks I was hoping to see, he is the epitome of don’t-mess-with-me braggadocio, confidence and power.
He is every bit pure wild boar. His nose and tail are straight, his back-end is at a 45-degree angle, his legs half his height, his face narrow. Deep beneath his coarse dark hair and solid muscle, I feel he’s shy, though. He doesn’t really want a fight, or any interaction at all come to that, and once he’s flashed his protector credentials, he ambles back for a snooze.
“They all have personalities – and names,” says Vicky Gamble, crouching down to give Murphy (named after actor Eddie because he prats around) a scratch behind the ears, and a friendly pat for Pork Chop, Nige, and Murphy’s brother, Red (he has russet-tinged hair).
“Not very scary, are they? They love a fuss!” She’s surrounded by a gang of young males who live in a separate part of the wood from Buster, Bubbles and Squeak, and who have come over to see us, hopeful of a treat or at least some attention. Mousey lies down and shuts his eyes, abandoning himself to the pleasure of behind tickled by Vicky until Doggy Hog – he sometimes sits up like a dog apparently – nudges him to play.
Vicky and her partner Jim own this herd of wild boar (numbers vary but the licence allows for up to 130) that live in seven acres of woodland not far from Haverhill. The boars’ home is a mix of scots pine, sweet chestnut, elm, sycamore, and hawthorn that Jim’s grandfather planted some 50 years ago.
“I was brought up playing here,” Jim says, “and when it came into my possession in 2013, Vicky and I decided to start the herd. I’ve always been fascinated by boar, how they are real survivors, powerful and adaptable, and are so characterful.”
The animals live in family units called ‘sounders’, led by Buster, the dominant, solitary, male, and Bubbles and fellow matriarch, Miss Piggy (these were Vicky and Jim’s original sows back in 2015). Five younger females are soon to farrow. They’ll give birth alone (these are wild animals after all) and their four to six piglets will suckle for up to 16 weeks and spend a full six months with the mother. They’ll then live in single sex groups (“so they don’t get jiggy!”) and grow naturally till the age of 18 months when they will have reached a finishing weight of 45-60kg.
The living quarters are all secured with Jurassic Park-style high tensile wire fencing that the boar can neither root beneath, bend with their powerful snouts, or jump over, and they rotate between one-acre sections to allow the land to be reseeded and regenerated every few months. The animals forage for insects, worms, seeds, berries, small mammals and bird eggs, breaking down bracken and helping disperse seeds as they go, much as they did throughout Britain until hunting caused their extinction in the mid-13th century.
“They have plenty of space and a stimulating environment, lots to play with – fallen trunks and logs to break up, a wallow for when it gets hot,” Vicky says. It’s peaceful. There is no noise beyond the odd grunt and squeal, as the animals play or are fed their ration of pig nuts, fodderbeet or other seasonal produce, and the smell is nothing more than a prick of eau de forest-floor.
That’s not the public perception of course, and getting this business going has been fraught – it took many months to secure a ‘dangerous wild animal’ licence. Vicky sighs, gives Mousey another tickle. “It’s the only application Braintree Council have ever received!
And yes, boar will dig up land given half the chance, and yes they can jump four feet, and yes they would win a fight with a fox, but if they live in the right environment that behaviour doesn’t emerge.” For Jim, the problem with the Forest of Dean wild boar (there is endless press a Google-search away about how this huge herd has allegedly struck fear into local people) is that the population has been allowed to get too big, apparently accounting for the majority of the UK’s total population of up to 3,000 animals.
“Britain is too congested for a herd that size to work. But there is still not a single recorded case in this country of a boar hurting, far less killing, a human. Every vet we speak to tells us this. We never forget that they are wild animals, though. We are always careful and respect them absolutely.”
And so the conversation turns to the inevitable. At around 18 months of age, Jim slaughters the animals on site with a vet in attendance.
“We only kill up to five at any one time because there’s a strict two-hour time frame between slaughter and the carcass reaching the slaughterhouse. We use C Humphreys & Sons at Black Notley, the closest butchers to us that will take boar.” Cut meat is then taken to Jackie Kennedy at Marsh Pig, the award-winning Norfolk-based charcuterie company. There, loins become delicate, sweet strips of lomo, the shoulder is transformed into coppa (the most popular cut), other parts are used to make red wine or black pepper salami, pancetta, chorizo, bacon.
“I’d like to use the damsons from the trees in the wood for a new salami flavour,” says Vicky. “I love the idea of being able to taste the forest floor in the meat.” The cured meats find ready customers at local farmers’ markets, the likes of Snape, Hoxne, Bury St Edmunds and Wyken, and Vicky and Jim will be at the Aldeburgh Food & Drink Festival for the first time this September.
“Our cured meats are not cheap, but you have to remember the boar are not slaughtered till 18 months of age, then there’s 12 weeks of curing, so it’s nearly two years before we have something to sell.” She’d like to increase the online business, and sell more fresh roasting joints, and burgers or sausages made by Humphreys.
“They have a stronger flavour and firmer texture than pork, a bit nutty because of what the boar eat, and the meat is lower in fat because of the animals’ lifestyle.” And every single mouthful is traceable right back to this very enchanting patch of woodland.
For more information visit The New England Boar Company.