NO matter how bleak theconditions on the high slopes of the ...

Date: Friday 14th November 2014
Jan Balfe gives two of her pigs a biscuit.
Jan Balfe gives two of her pigs a biscuit.

NO matter how bleak theconditions on the high slopes of the Pennines this winter, the happy herd of woolly Mangalitsa pigs at The Old Battery House Farm, Galligill, should stay snug, thanks to a groundbreaking use ofsustainable technology.

Mother and offspring revel in the mud
Mother and offspring revel in the mud
Jan Balfe with her straw-walled pig house in the background
Jan Balfe with her straw-walled pig house in the background
A Mangalitsa piglet
A Mangalitsa piglet

Pig farming partnership Jan Balfe and Carolyn Nelson are creating an eco-friendly straw house for their rare breed Eldorhog herd and hope that others will follow their green example.

Once complete, the straw structure which Jan believes to be the first of its kind in Europe will boast a state-of-the-art underfloor heatingsystem, fuelled by pig poo!

The daughter of a Lancashire butcher and pig farmer, Jan has a background in science,engineering and IT. The house at Galligill, which came with 10 acres, was bought in 2010 and Jan soon acquired three Mangalitsa pigs “as a hobby”.

The breed is native to Austria and Hungary, where it has long been prized Mangalitsas were originally bred exclusively for the royal families of Europe and traded on the Vienna stock exchange alongside gold.

Being a mountain breed, the Mangalitsa copes well with the sometimes harsh conditions of the North Pennines. Itsdistinctive woolly coat reminiscent of a sheep certainly sets it apart from other breeds of pig commonly seen in the UK.

In the past four years Jan, who does most of the hands-onmanagement of the herd, has built up numbers and now has 25 full-grown pigs, and around 25 piglets and weaners.

The animals range across the farmland in as close to a natural state as possible.

“Piglets stay with theirmothers until I’m confident that they are ready to join the herd usually between eight and 12 weeks,” said Jan.

Litters tend to be about five to seven and Jan likes to be present at every birth. “I want to make that human contact from the beginning. Mangalitsas make fantastic, ferocious mothers,” she said.

They are also proving to be a wonderfully healthy strain, and Jan says she has never lost a pig to sickness.

The animals are raised to 20 months before being slaughtered for their meat a very different business model to mostcommercial pig producers, whose animals are killed at around 26 weeks.

The resulting meat which is sold on site and through the website, usually in the form of sausages and roasting joints is a far cry from mainstream pork. A dark, ruby red in colour, it has a very high fat content, making it ideal for the production of hams, chorizo sausage and dry cured meats.

The meat retails at around £12 to £18 per kilo locally with similar products fetching as much as £34 per kg through high-end London outlets. As well as foraging freely on the farmland at The Old Battery House, the herd tucks into a mixed diet of barley and pig nuts as well as large quantities of veg carrots, potatoes and swedes supplied by Carleton Farm, Penrith.

It is partly with a view to cutting their feed bills that Jan and Carolyn have been inspired to invest in construction of their new, bespoke, straw pig unit.

With foundations constructed of used car tyres, and walls of straw bales rendered in clay, topped off with a turf and herb roof, the build has sound ecological credentials and is being supported by Cumbria Action for Sustainability.

The basic structure is already in place, and, once complete, in just a few weeks, it will be heated via an underfloor system based on using heat generated by rotting pig manure in outside containers.

“We are aiming to keep the temperature at 14 degrees, that’s the optimum temperature for good pig health,” explained Jan, adding that the warmth would help to reduce the pigs’ energy needs and thus cut feed bills. The animals will still spend part of the day roaming outdoors, even during the winter months.

One slight area of concern, however, is that the pigs might decide to eat their new house, rather than live in it. They have shown a keen appetite for the clay which will be used to render the new building, chomping their way through several barrow loads of the stuff.

At a cost of between £20,000 and £25,000, the build is causing quite a bit of interest among local farmers, some of whom have chosen to construct stock housing using more mainstream materials such as corrugated metal.

Looking at the project as a whole, Jan explained: “Our main aim is to raise healthy pigs and sell the pork, but another passion is the education side to show that you can raise pigs sustainably and use a straw built barn.”

And underpinning the enterprise is a loyal crew of volunteers, who come to the farm from far and near to learn skills ranging from pig husbandry to green building techniques.

Jan and Carolyn are more than happy to share their interest and expertise with people in return for their help, and are also pleased to welcome visitors on to the farm who want to see the pigs and perhaps buy some of the Elderhog pork. Plans for the future include running formal courses in some of these areas, as well as butchery workshops for those interested in cutting their own meat.