In Ireland pigs are back in fashion

DUBLIN, Ireland ― Irish people no longer keep a pig in the parlor, but rearing pigs in the backyard is making a comeback as a way to beat the recession and improve the quality of the morning rasher.

“It’s great fun and not expensive, and it’s certainly on the rise,” said Michael Kelly, author and founder of Grow it Yourself Ireland, which promotes self-sufficiency. Last year he fattened two little pigs, which he called Charlotte and Mildred, at the bottom of his one-acre garden in Dunmore East, Co. Waterford.

The number of Irish people applying to keep pigs has risen from just 190 two years ago, when the economy began to crash, to 687 in 2009. Today the Department of Agriculture defines one in five of Ireland’s 2,500 registered pig keepers as hobbyists.

Denis Shannon, who keeps a couple of sows on his 20-acre small holding outside Wexford and produces about 40 weanlings a year, says many more people today are looking to buy piglets for their own use.

“A few years ago nobody wanted weanlings, now I have a list of people who buy them before they are born,” Shannon said.

The “pig in the parlor” stereotype of Ireland came from the system landlords imposed more than three centuries ago of charging peasants extra rent for pig houses. The poor country people found that as a pig is a clean and intelligent animal, it could share a clay cabin without soiling it if allowed to come and go. Until recent times there was a tradition in rural Ireland of keeping one pig in the yard to eat the scraps and provide an extra source of food. They could even be found in Dublin where a quarter of the land is garden.

The practice came to be associated with poverty and died out with the coming of supermarkets. In the boom years of the Celtic Tiger, hot tubs and decks became more desirable. Now that Ireland is listed as one of the unofficial "PIIGS" of the eurozone, along with Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, because of debt problems, the creatures themselves have returned to some Irish gardens.

The resurgence in popularity of domestic pigs is due partly to the soaring unemployment rate, currently 13 percent, and partly because “people are looking at where their food is coming from,” said Shannon. “It starts with people buying a couple of chickens for the eggs and the next step is to get a pig.” He enthuses about the quality of pork from free range hogs. “The meat from a pig kept without stress for eight months and killed properly is a completely different product than that sold in the shops — rich and dark,” he said.

Indeed, if keeping pigs improves humans' quality of life, it's also a boon for the pigs, as they can root happily in the earth and splash around in the rain, rather than suffer the concrete confines of swine farms.

It makes sense for someone who is out of work and has a bit of space in their yard to keep pigs , said Kelly, though he got so fond of Charlotte and Mildred that he found it difficult to have them slaughtered.

A pair of weanlings typically costs 80 euros ($110) and the outlay on feeding them over four or five months and having them killed properly would bring the total to 300 euros ($410). They could, however, produce 700 euros ($950) worth of superior pork and bacon.

The number of people keeping pigs today might be even greater if it were not for the bureaucracy involved, Kelly said. In order to get pigs to an abattoir for slaughter, a pig keeper needs a herd number, which means a Department of Agriculture inspection.

“In general terms keeping pigs is a far more laborious process than keeping a few hens, which loads of people are starting to get into now,” Kelly said.

He supports a campaign in Ireland against the intensive indoor breeding of pigs that never get to see the sunshine or a blade of grass. Last year the advocacy group “Compassion in World Farming — Ireland” submitted a complaint to the European Commission in Brussels about widespread breaches of European Union rules on pig rearing in Ireland. It charged Irish farmers with routinely keeping pigs confined and removing their tails to stop animals biting each other.

The campaign is backed by two of Dublin’s top chefs, Kevin Thornton of Thornton’s Restaurant and Richard Corrigan of Bentleys Oyster Bar and Grill, who asserted recently that they would have more pork on the menu if they could get enough of sufficient quality. The growth of backyard piggeries may help provide the solution.