In season 4 of Downton Abbey, Lord Grantham sets off to America reminding Mary on his departure to enjoy her new endeavour – raising pigs. Lady Mary and her beau Charles Blake end up refilling water troughs and getting extremely muddy dressed, of course, all the while in full black tie.
Pigs have starred at Highclere Castle in other fictional roles as well: Highclere was Blandings Castle in the series Jeeves and Wooster with Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. One of the main story lines was the competition between Lord Emsworth (who lived here in fiction) and his beloved prize winning sow the Empress of Blandings. His arch-rival Sir Gregory Parsloe owned a sow called The Pride of Matchingham and was always up to dastardly tricks.
In real life Highclere has raised pigs for centuries and the 4thEarl of Carnarvon and his mother bred award winning pigs 150 years ago. Today Highclere primarily farms wheat, oats, barley and sheep. These agricultural products are essential to what we all eat every day, from flour for bread, cakes and scones, oats for breakfast cereals for us and for horses, barley for beer and malt whiskey and some pearl barley for us. We also grow wildflowers for seeds, leave areas untouched for our fellow wildlife and have areas of permanent pasture. None of this, however, is as cute as animals.
There was a lost area behind some woods and, leaning on gate one day talking to Simon our farm manager, we wondered if the answer was to bring back some pigs and clear the water drain so that they could happily wallow all year round.
This led us to Giles Eustace at Trevaskis Farm in Cornwall and the endangered British Lop. I was aghast and ignorant on learning that there were only just over 100 sows left in the world. Sir David Attenborough has created some extraordinary films which highlight the beauty, the richness of this planet and the extent to which we are leaving no room for wild animals and nature but, in fact, endangered species are not thousands of miles away from any of us. They are right here.
Beginning with two sows, Thelma and Louise, we rented a boar (Ernie) from Giles at Trevaskis, who suggested that rather than driving a boar up and down from Cornwall, we buy one. Simon and I set off to Trevaskis Farm, near Truro in Cornwall, and returned with Arthur (King Arthur of Tintagel) who successfully mated with our gilts, daughters of Thelma and Louise – Lady Mary, Lady Sibyl and Lady Edith. (They are part of the actress line, Arthur is part of the Cornish line – the gene pools are small).
Two of the ladies are still here. Adam Henson (well known to many UK viewers from Country File) has taken Edith and we have kept Mary and Sibyl. Mary is a rather special person, interested in people, sitting up rather like a dog and loving being patted and scratched – appreciative of the attention and quite relaxed. Sibyl however has her own views on life and Simon and I spent some time trying to get her inside her shed for the night before she farrowed. It is very hard to move a large obdurate pig around.
Each had 9 piglets. In the early days care is needed because if the piglets squeak, their mother is on the case. Now if I pick up a piglet and it squeals, Mary or Sibyl may raise their head but do not run over.
Various commentators pointed out that Downton’s pig theme and plot was not exactly going to create much income for the Grantham family and, similarily, I am not sure my husband took much notice of what I was doing. In fact, he only knew Arthur was coming to Highclere when he came across him in a barn here.
Nevertheless, these rather friendly traditional pigs have now led us to TV and press, with another window into their lives on Channel 5 (June 23rd 8pm) this week. The UK is a leader in good farming practices although it is hard sometimes to demonstrate how well animals are looked after or how balanced the crop rotation practices are. Following 1939, we ploughed up all the land to grow food to survive and continued to try to make sure we were better able to support our food requirements thereafter. In the last fifty years the balance has swung to trying to include the needs of nature as well, learning that the two are often interlinked rather than in competition. Now once again we live in interesting times but small endeavours can take us all towards larger goals. Or, in Lady Mary’s case, not quite so small……