The Berkshire Pig
Berkshire Pig, painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel, 60X76 centimetres
The beginnings of most rare breeds are obscure. This is largely due to the fact that livestock breeding as we know it today is a relatively recent development compared to our history of animal husbandry which stretches back nearly ten thousand years. The systematic improvement of livestock by selective breeding and livestock record keeping only started in the late eighteenth century. Before that time, it was pretty much anything goes as far as livestock was concerned. Consequently, for a long time, there was a great deal of variety within regional domesticated animal types.
Map of Berkshire circa 1911 (Wikipedia)
The exceptionally flavourful pork from pigs kept in the Berkshire region to the west of London was famous as far back as the seventeenth century. There is an apocryphal story about Oliver Cromwell’s troops being stationed in Reading, near London, where they had occasion to eat the delicious bacon served in the inns there and remarked upon the tastiness of the meat. It is difficult to say if this story is true, but as an army marches on its stomach, it seems likely that Cromwell’s men would have been glad of good bacon whenever they could get it. Perhaps that bacon came from Berkshire pigs.
The earliest descriptions we have of the Berkshire pig are of a type of big pig that came in a variety of colours and shapes:
In early nineteenth-century agricultural records, several diﬀerently appearing hogs were called Berkshires. Some were large red or sandy-colored stock, often with black spots. Others were colored black and white or spotted. Both prick and lop ears were seen.
(Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered Livestock and poultry Breeds, p. 186. Yale University Press, 2001)
A Berkshire Pig as it appeared in the Canadian Farmer, 1866
Somewhere in the Berkshire’s history – probably in the late eighteenth century – genetics from Neapolitan pigs were brought in. These small, black Neapolitan pigs were likely derived from Asian – probably Chinese – breeding stock. It is from the introduction of these Neapolitan (Chinese) pigs that the Berkshire developed the characteristics, i.e. black colouring and dished face, by which we recognize it today. In 1825 a breed registry for the Berkshire was begun in England, establishing the breed standard and making it one of the earliest recognised breeds. An official breed society formed in England circa 1883.
The Berkshire is a medium sized black pig with white points, which is to say white feet, tail, and white markings on the face. They are short-legged and compact pigs, with prick (upright) ears, a ‘dished’ face and a medium-length snout ending in a slightly upturned nose. Boars weigh approximately 280 kg. Sows weigh a bit less at around 220 kg. The breed is also known for its strong mothering instincts and milk production, its hardiness, and easy-going temperament. The Berkshire matures early and is ideal for meat production. It does well in confinement, but is also an excellent pig for the outdoors. Due to its dark skin, it does not sunburn as easily as white pigs. Berkshire pork is fine textured, well-marbled, a deep, rich pink in colour, and is exceptionally flavourful.
Berkshire piglet belonging to Brent and Janet Tolhurst, St-Chrysotome, QC
Berkshire pigs were exported to the US as early as 1823 and to Canada slightly after that. The breed was hugely popular in the nineteenth century – Queen Victoria herself once owned a Berkshire boar called The Ace of Spades – until the mid- twentieth century when changes in pork production and in food ‘fashion’ made the Berkshire unpopular due in large part to the its dark skin. Consequently, the Berkshire’s numbers plummeted, and for many years the animal was considered critically endangered.
The Berkshire’s status has improved somewhat. The slow food movement in North America and Europe has helped to re-establish this excellent breed for what Berkshires offer the palate that modern industrial breeds do not: flavour.
The breed has also enjoyed long term popularity in Japan. Yes, you read that right- Japan. Sometime in Meiji era of the mid-nineteenth century, shortly after the breed standard was formally established in England, the Berkshire pig went back to Asia and found a home in Japan. In Kagoshima Prefecture, one may find the famous Kagoshima Black Pigs which produce pork of excellent quality that is highly sought after and commands high prices. Kagoshima Black Pigs are the result of crosses between those nineteenth century Berkshires and indigenous pigs. The Japanese continue to import Berkshire bloodlines from Canada, the US and England.
Japanese advertisement for Kagoshima Black Pigs
Rare Breeds Canada lists the Berkshire as vulnerable as of the 2016 Conservation List.
Additional sources: Rare Breeds Survival Trust (www.rbst.org.uk); Lawrence Alderson, The Chance to Survive, A.H. Jolly (Editorial) Ltd, 1989 revised edition, Wikipedia Japan (kindly translated by Tad Mitsui. Thanks, Tad!)