What wonderful, prized piggies you are

From boarish brute to babe of Hollywood. Peter Popham looks at the rise of the swine
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The Independent Online
Pigs have had an image problem since they first came snuffling out of the forest, consuming everything in their path and wallowing in mire. But signs that this need not for ever be their destiny were proliferating this week.

Pigs scored unlikely victories in a range of unrelated fields: cinematic charisma, economic muscle, sensitivity, chic, even intelligence. The Chinese call 1996 the Year of the Rat, but the pig is rapidly making it his own.

In the week that the film Babe, starring an intelligent and sensitive piglet, secured eight Oscar nominations including Best Film, the quaint, archaic-sounding crime of piglet-rustling seized the headlines when a farmer near Retford in Nottinghamshire lost 262 piglets overnight. It was only the latest of several such recent cases, in which more than 500 piglets have gone missing. But it wasn't just the exoticism of the offence that arrested people: it was the value of the stolen animals. Each piglet, aged between three and six weeks, was worth about pounds 50. Richard Longthorp's total loss was about pounds 13,000.

Part of the reason they were so valuable is that pigs are also sensitive. In normal conditions sows are incredibly productive, bearing two litters of 10 or more piglets per year. Last summer, however, it was too damn hot, and their libidos were simply not up to it: snuffling and wallowing was all they were good for. As a result, there are far fewer tiny feet than normal pattering around the nation's pigsties this spring, and prices have shot up to the extent, according to the Central Statistical Office, that they have had an impact on inflation rates.

Sexual apathy is not, however, the only reason why a piglet is now an animal to be prized. Suddenly, some unlikely customers have started bringing home the (British) bacon as never before in history. In a country as affluent as Japan, and as inordinately well protected by trade barriers, it's a rare British export that succeeds in wriggling through: Rolls-Royces and Mini-Coopers, premium malt whisky, Burberry raincoats and Paul Smith suits - these are the classy and specialised sorts of niches in which British products have customarily made an impact.

Now add one more: pork meat - some 5,000 tons of it last year. Another 10,000 tons went to the Asian "tiger" economies such as Korea. For an even-toed ungulate whose name is a byword for "glutton", "slob" or "policeman" (also, in the 19th century, "journalist"), this amounts to some serious social climbing.

Aggressive advertising by the meat industry - such as the claim that ounce for ounce pork has less fat than cottage cheese - has helped to consolidate these gains. Of course this didn't used to be the case in the days when pigs - even in the centres of our cities - functioned as a four-legged rubbish disposal service, eating anything that came their way. Today, says Mick Slayan of the Meat and Livestock Commission, a pig's menu is as carefully calculated as any dieting supermodel's: the strip of fat in a typical rasher of bacon accordingly gets thinner year by year.

With the pig advancing boldly on all these fronts, it is not surprising that it is once again being taken seriously as a potential pet; add the compliment "intelligent" (ignore the rejoinder "compared to what?") and it won't be long before the piglet out on Hampstead Heath at the end of a lead, cosy in its little tartan waistcoat, will be commonplace - a swine of the times, you might say.

It has to be said, however, that there are good reasons for resisting this idea, should one's progeny propose it. A dog may be for life: a piglet is quite literally only for Christmas plus a little time on either side, because after six months of gorging it has ballooned from a cute, pink, pickupable little bundle of fun weighing 10 lbs or less, to a slobbering monster of two hundredweight. If it's a breeding sow, it can weigh up to twice that much - with the prospect of up to 20 "babes" per year to find good homes for.

Down on the farm, a pig's life is a brief, but eventful six months; there's no time or opportunity to do much but eat and bloat. In the wild, however, they live up to six years, and in adulthood the males start to rediscover their wild side. For the full domestication of the pig has been a relatively recent matter. Although reared on farms for thousands of years, they were half-wild and sometimes dangerous until the last century, when cross-breeding with more docile Asian varieties finally calmed them down.

But their boarish genetic inheritance still lurks inside, waiting to be rediscovered once they are done with growing fat. The pig's snout, a mobile, disc-like plate of cartilage reinforced with bone makes a formidable rooting and pushing tool. The mean jaws conceal extremely nasty teeth. "Past 18 months, the males start to get positively dangerous," an expert advises. "They'll have your leg off before you know it."

The lessons have all been painfully learnt before: back in the Eighties, Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs were the pet a la mode for the socially ambitious in the United States, known as the "pocket pig" or the "hog to jog with" on account of their diminutive size. But unscrupulous breeders cut them with common-or-garden pigs, resulting in piglets that swelled into monsters that nobody wanted. The outcome was not much better that that of the great New York pet alligator disaster - with the difference that it is harder to flush a large hog down the loo.