Happy to talk about his favourite subject all day, Professor Peter Brooks, pig behaviour expert, sits surrounded by porcine memorabilia in his office at Plymouth University's agricultural department. 'I'm thinking of opening an art gallery dedicated to the pig,' he says with an oinkish chuckle. 'My house is full of pig artefacts: piggy banks, pig salt cellars, posters, paintings and antiquarian pig books, even pig loo-roll holders.
'However, my most valued possession is an Andy Warhol print of a live pig, painted in bright colours in the form of a piggy bank - the concept of which, incidentally, came down to us from the cottagers who in ancient times used to see the pig as a means of saving, with everyone having a share in the animal when it was killed.'
Professor Brooks is up and running, gaining momentum with every piggy fact. Did I know, for example, that the pig contributes more to meat supply worldwide than any other species? Pork, I learn, in its multifarious forms, is more palatable and healthy now, thanks to breeders' success in reducing its fat content. And I certainly was not aware that pork tastes remarkably similar to human flesh, at least according to Polynesian cannibals - 'long pig' being their term for human being. 'Genetically, you see, pigs are similar to humans, hence the use of pig organs in heart valve operations. And, like humans, pigs are omnivores and will eat almost anything.'
He swivels his office chair while tapping a pink china piggy bank with his pen. 'Pigs have social tendencies,' he tells me. 'Just like a dog, a pig will run up and greet its keeper, unlike a cow or a sheep, which will look right through you.' While I sit contemplating fields full of rather callous-sounding sheep and cattle, Professor Brooks is coming up with vivid examples of the pig's high- flung intelligence.
'It was really no accident that Orwell made them the thinkers and movers in Animal Farm,' he explains. 'He knew what he was talking about. It may sound strange, I've watched pigs stand back and think about a problem.'
As a farmer's son, he was the one with a problem - one that was, in fact, eventually solved by the pig. He was incapable of getting out of bed at the required crack of dawn. 'Cows need milking at around 5am - big problem. Pigs, however, can be fed around 10 or 11. So I gravitated more and more towards the pig.'
This also affected his younger brother, who chose to go into pig management. The Brooks brothers' joint careers have been subject to much leg- pulling over the years. 'I got a pig embroidered sweater for Christmas,' Professor Brooks says. 'My brother got pig slippers.' You love your pig, you pay the price. Shrugs all round, and an ever so slightly indignant snort (or was it a snuffle?).
Peter Brooks stayed at Nottingham University to do a postgraduate degree on 'short-term nutritional effects on the reproduction in the sow'. It proved to be a milestone, as he discovered that if you give sows more food on the day they are mated, they will produce more piglets. 'Sow reproduction has always been my thing,' he adds, eyes glazing.
He also convinces me that the poor creature's associations with dirt and slothfulness are worthy of an international corrective campaign. 'The negative imagery,' Professor Brooks explains, 'came with the Industrial Revolution. For many hundreds of years man and pigs lived in comfortable clean harmony, with the semi-wild pig wandering through forests foraging from nature's waste.
'With the Industrial Revolution, pigs were taken to the cities and became an all-consuming sewage system, living in filthy conditions in small, enclosed pens.' He quotes from a journal giving a rather uncharming picture of the Manchester of 1844: 'A multitude of pigs are walking about in the alleys, rooting in the offal heaps or imprisoned in small pens. The atmosphere is utterly corrupted by putrefying animal and vegetable substances.'
At the core of Professer Brooks's work is the pig's welfare and his serious intent to put an end to the hideously restrictive sow stalls used in intensive farming. 'I am an evangelist, spreading the word of how to use the pig's natural behaviour patterns to control the pig as we want it: working with the pig rather than against it,' he explains.
'Plymouth University was the first to put animal welfare on its curriculum. Britain is in the forefront of animal welfare; on the Continent they don't understand what all the fuss is about, and restricted pens are widely used. I have travelled the world and am still prepared to travel anywhere to try to make people understand pig production can be humane.
'Here at the university, we've been working to make the pigs' short lives as comfortable as possible. We have, in fact, devised ways of asking pigs questions regarding their wellbeing.
'Talking to animals is something we all do anyway, but in behavioural terms, my students observe how the pig arranges its living quarters in an attempt to make its environment as suited to its needs as possible.'
Certainly, the 150 pigs at the university's pen seem to have a pretty good time of it. Professor Brooks waves his hand like a guide in a stately home. 'They have a garden to stroll about in, a pleasant dormitory, and water and food on tap, a nice wallowing mudbath area.'
As we speak, a few sows are strolling about the garden, from the contented snorts and snuffles seemingly at peace with the world. It is almost possible to imagine these pink-skinned beauties in sunglasses and shorts - perhaps some relaxing on lounger beds, and others paddling up and down a swimming pool. Anthropomorphic visions, however, deny the reality of this scientific environment and are frowned upon. The reality is that, at the end of the day, the pig is here for one reason alone, and is granted a life of only six months before being slaughtered.
'Whether you're talking about sheep, cattle or pigs, the ambivalence is always there. I am a farmer's son, a scientist and a pragmatist,' says Professor Brooks. 'Pigs would not exist as they now do if it weren't for man. I know farmers and vets who are vegetarians, so we live among contradictions.
'The majority of people eat meat in this country, but they want to know that animals are treated humanely while alive, and slaughtered with minimum stress and as near as possible to their origins. These are our aims here at the university.'
Professor Brooks points out the computerised feeding machine that is linked to a collar worn by a pig. The computer gauges the amount the pig has eaten and adjusts the food supply. 'The first computerised feeding system we had took its developers a long time to produce and cost many thousands of pounds. However, within a few minutes of its installation, one of the pigs had found out how to get into the exit door, and after defeating the electronics, gobbled as much food as desired,' he explains. 'Within 20 minutes it had taught most of the other pigs to do the same. It makes me smile to think of hi-tech brains being outwitted by a pig.'
He is keen to espouse the environmental benefits of the animals, which he hopes will in the future become a means of dealing with harmful but nutritionally valuable wastes, such as the by-products of the brewing industry.
'In pre-Christian times, when much of the country was broad-
leaved forest, the hog was domesticated and pigs grazed watched- over by the swine herdsman. In autumn they grew fat on acorns and beechnuts and over winter they survived on bracken roots and man's wastage. Thus the pigs used natural resources that had no value to man. Truly pigs were most productive dustbins. But the increasing concentration of pigs in
intensive farms has sadly meant that the pig no longer has a role in recycling.
'Pig keeping is as old as agriculture, the Domesday Book classified forests on the basis of their pig-supporting capacity,' he says, stopping to look down from the viewing platform at one of his charges, looking up inquisitively at us, nostrils twitching. Whatever the pig might be thinking, it is difficult to share Professor Brooks's relaxed attitude. This eyeball-to-eyeball contact makes a convincing argument for vegetarianism, and the non-thinking carrot.
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