What are the benefits of farming with pigs?
Where ‘ecology’ is the study of relationships between plants, animals and people, agroecology is the application of these principles to farming.
Models show that, if carried out on a large scale, agroecology could have an amazing impact on our climate, nature and health. That’s why we’re empowering farmers and growers across the UK to work agroecologically wherever possible. Helping us to spread the word about this mission are our Farmer Ambassadors, a group of experts who are using agroecological methods to produce food with the environment in mind.
Among them is Lynn Cassells of Lynbreck Croft - an incredible project that has won awards for its innovative and nature-friendly practices. We caught up with Lynn to talk more about the work she does and the crucial role pigs play in keeping her land in-balance with nature…
Tell us a little bit about your croft! What do you grow there, and what inspired you to start farming with pigs?
We came to work in agriculture by accident! Before we started at Lynbreck, we had been looking for some land to become self-sufficient and grow our own food. We fell in love with this corner of the highlands but, with 150 acres at our disposal, decided that to make the best use of it we would produce food not just for ourselves but for our local community.
We’re managing to do so much here. We have a very productive kitchen garden and ‘Polycrub’, a polytunnel/greenhouse hybrid, from which we grow the vast majority of our annual vegetables for personal use. For our larger, commercial operation we have pasture hens for eggs, Highland Cattle for beef, rare-breed pigs for pork and bees for honey. There’s rarely a quiet moment!
Concerning farming with pigs, we work with about 12 pigs a year. We have a philosophy at Lynbreck to only carry the number of animals we believe will have a regenerative impact on the land. We wanted to run pigs to break up the ground and stimulate new and diverse growth of pasture plants and tree species, which has been effective so far.
What do pigs do that other farm animals don’t (or don’t do as successfully)?
Pigs, which are a domesticated version of the native wild boar, are a brilliant animal to work with. They’re very smart, requiring lots of space and plenty to do to keep their minds active and busy.
Something that’s quite unique to pigs is their penchant for ‘rooting’: engaging their snouts in the ground and turning over areas of vegetation. Rooting, followed by rest, can really benefit the ground as it mimics the natural impact of wild boar, a keystone species. To us, the productivity value of land is not just measured on how much food can be produced, but how healthy the ecosystem is as a whole. That’s what we focus on at Lynbreck, to ensure long-term health and diversity for our land and long-term resilience and consistency for our business.
Practical uses aside, it’s a lot of fun having pigs around. As well as being independent souls and content to do their own thing, they enjoy human interaction and love nothing more than a belly scratch. It’s not a bad way to spend a few minutes of your day.
What types of pig are you using on your land? Why did you choose those breeds?
We only use rare breeds and, where possible, try to source our favourite breed known as the Oxford Sandy and Black. They:
- Are hardy and hairy, which means they’re adaptable to the varied terrain at our croft
- Have quite a short snout, meaning they don’t tend to dig too deep
- Have a wonderful temperament
- Provide meat of the highest quality.
We chose this breed initially because we got to know some local breeders. It’s important to us to prioritise buying from people we trust, rather than focusing on just the breed alone, as animal welfare is always at the forefront of our minds. Fortunately, the Oxford Sandy and Black in particular is an amazing breed that’s really complemented the nature-friendly systems we have in place to grow food while regenerating the land.
Where have your pigs proven to be particularly helpful?
Farming with trees - otherwise known as agroforestry - is a priority of ours, and we’ve noticed new tree seedlings growing in areas that have been popular with our pigs. We’re delighted as that’s exactly the outcome we wanted to see from working with them.
We’ve also seen that, in grassland areas where our pigs have been, there is greater diversity in the sward. Among other things, this diversity is better for biodiversity, meaning that our pigs are having a positive knock-on effect on the local environment in and around our croft.
We’ve also given our pigs targeted jobs, such as preparing and clearing the ground for areas in which we have then planted new trees. So they’ve been extremely multi-functional!
Any final thoughts on farming with pigs?
With all of our animals (pigs included), farming with nature and to the highest animal welfare levels we can is always our goal. We prize our animals, and along with the crucial role they play on our croft, we think it’s equally crucial that they’re looked after to the best standard.
Being around animals is also a nice way to farm and live. To work closely with our animal team and together with nature isn’t just good for the environment in general, it’s good for our mental and physical health. Now, we both work full-time at Lynbreck - running a diverse, small scale farm business that pays the bills, and where quality of food and quality of life are what matters most.