Country Matters: You're in for a pig surprise

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On Monday evening, Richard Stride turned his little herd of Tamworth- cross pigs loose in the New Forest at the start of the annual pannage season. For the next 60 days, the animals will feast on fallen acorns; after two months, they will be ready for market, and their meat will have acquired that indescribable flavour that only wild foraging can produce.

The Stride family members have been commoners of the forest for at least six centuries, and Richard himself embodies many local traditions, having devoted his life to the area and its ancient customs. As foreman in the Forestry Commission, he is responsible for much regular maintenance work - the pollarding of holly trees, the burning of heather and gorse, the clearance of ragwort, and so on. But at home, on his own account, he keeps ponies, cattle, pigs, chickens and a milk-cow. He lives "way out in the wilds", at a place where he can turn stock out of the gate "and they go straight off across the heath, without any neighbour to complain about dung on the road".

His forebears have run their animals loose in the forest for generations; yet old ways are gradually dying out, and in any case, over the past few weeks Richard's pigs have been taking part in a novel experiment. In August, he parked them in a trial enclosure, about 40 yards square, to see if they would root out the carpet of gaultheria, or American strawberry, an invasive shrub with shiny, dark green leaves which appears to have spread from the ornamental grounds of the Rhinefield House hotel, and has infested one particular area.

By the beginning of this week they had done an impressive job: they had reduced their compound to a sea of mud, not only killing the gaultheria but also digging out, and much enjoying, the roots of the bracken - another pestilential species. Sustained by this healthy diet, and by buckets of potatoes brought to them every evening, they looked lean and fit.

For their work as excavators, Richard removed the rings from their snouts so that they could dig freely; but before they were let loose on the acorns, he had to re-ring them to stop them digging up the forest floor. So on Monday, with the help of his three sons, and in the presence of an agister - one of the forest managers - he got them re-rung, ear-tagged, and set them free.

Their role now is to clean up under oak trees before the wild ponies get there; for acorns, though excellent for pigs and deer, are poisonous to horses, and kill 20 or 30 every year. The porkers will probably range out about a mile, but their owner is luring them back to their sleeping hut every night with generous handouts of their favourite spuds. Deep in the forest, they should be safe from human marauders - although one winter he did lose a prime specimen, and reckoned that "somebody had a good Christmas".

So far, so good. But what will happen, come December, when they should go to market? As Richard says: "you can't give pigs away at the moment." Prices are rock-bottom. A friend of his recently took a lorryful into market at Salisbury, and the auctioneer told him: "Don't even unload them, because we won't get a bid." (Farmers blame the glut on a flood of cheap imports.)

This collapse in values is threatening the whole system of management in the New Forest. Cattle and ponies play a vital role in maintaining the open texture of the forest: without their constant grazing and browsing, huge areas would soon become overgrown. Yet now the animals are barely worth keeping, and of the 420-odd commoners whose properties entail rights in the forest, fewer and fewer keep stock or take part in traditional activities.

At the same time, paradoxically, everyone agrees that the number of ponies - thought to be about 6,000 - is far too high. Richard agrees, yet his own practicality is tempered by an emotional attachment to the way of life that his family has known for so long. Thus, when you ask how many ponies he owns, he just gives a merry laugh, and goes on to enthuse about the excitement of the drifts, or mounted round-ups, which take place at this time of year.

"You hold the drift, and you catch a lot of ponies, but the artful ones are very wild, and know how to get away. If some escape for two or three years, and then we do capture them, it's a big thing - all part of the mystery of the forest."

This autumn, he has hardened his heart and culled some mares that were old or "not thrifty", but on the whole he finds it "difficult to get rid of the ponies we've always had, because they're in our blood". For the future, he wishes some way could be found to exploit the European demand for horse meat: Belgium would buy all the cull-foals which the forest could supply, if only there were a local abattoir in which they could be slaughtered.

Looking back from the grand old age of 47, Richard laments the fact that he has devoted so much time to animals. His sons have recently started a small business, and he reckons that if he too had done that, he might by now be well-off. As it is, living in a Forestry Commission house, he has never managed to accumulate the capital to buy property in the area: prices are astronomical, and he was chagrined the other day to see a small bungalow go for pounds 325,000.

In short, Richard fears that he has wasted his time. Others might disagree. It is men like him who have preserved the forest's traditions for so long, and given it the unique character that it retains today.