With their inbuilt talent for digging, Tamworth pigs are playing an important role in two major rewilding projects. The pigs, supplied by longstanding Tamworth breeder Caroline Wheatley-Hubbard, are hard at work helping restore land to the state that nature intended at Wild Ken Hill in Norfolk and the Mapperton Estate in Dorset. 

Caroline took over her family’s Berkswell herd of Tamworths at Boyton Farm in Wiltshire in the late 1980s. In preparation for her retirement from the main farm, she was downsizing the herd but wanted to avoid sending sows to slaughter too soon. She was delighted, therefore, to be contacted by Nick Padwick, Farm Director at Wild Ken Hill. Caroline explains: “Nick had been talking to a dairy adviser who we had worked with 30 years ago about where to get Tamworth pigs for a rewilding project. Luckily Nick’s mother lives near us so to bring a trailer and take two barren sows back with him to Norfolk was a simple job.

“The Tamworth has the longest snout of all the traditional British breeds and it is beginning to form a reputation as the rewilding pig because of its digging prowess. It is also the nearest to the original forest pig, with fewer ‘improved’ crossings early in the breed’s history as being the ‘Midlands pig’ its population was based far from sea ports.”

Wild Ken Hill

Ken Hill is a 4,000 acre family holding in west Norfolk with a long history of supporting nature conservation in tandem with commercial arable farming. In 2018, the team embarked on the ‘Wild Ken Hill’ project in an effort to derive greater benefits from the land under its management. There were two key motivations: to address biodiversity and climate issues in a more radical fashion while supporting improvements in public health by satisfying society’s needs for access to nature, and to future-proof its operations from Brexit and other commercial challenges.

Ken Hill sits at the intersection of several soil types. The holding consequently takes in a diverse set of habitats and landscapes: undulating terrain with good, base-rich soils capable of supporting arable farming, sandier soils where arable farming is possible but difficult, deciduous woodland, acid heathland, grazing meadows, freshwater marshes, and areas of coastal park.

The project is taking a three-pronged approach comprising traditional conservation practices, regenerative agriculture and re-wilding. It is in Wild Ken Hill’s rewilding area that the Tamworths have been put to work in approximately 1,000 acres of mixed ex-arable, heathland and scrub. This area was chosen because it had low levels of productivity and could only be considered profitable with support from stewardship payments and the use of chemical fertilizers. At the same time, it didn’t provide any other benefits to society, whereas rewilding was seen as an opportunity to provide greater public goods.

While there is considerable debate about the definition of rewilding, the Wild Ken Hill model is based on the concept of a low-intervention, natural process-focused variant of conservation, contrasting the active management approach of traditional conservation with the aim of repairing natural processes to allow them to do the work. The rewilding scheme has been designed to maximise the site’s ecological potential and sees the reintroduction of species such as beavers and the introduction of appropriate livestock to carry out natural grazing. In order to make this work, the rewilding area is perimeter fenced with signage to reduce human-wildlife interaction.

The job of the Tamworths in all of this is to help restore natural habitat on the ex-arable land, where they are acting as 'natural ploughs', disturbing the soil which allows micro habitats to establish. Looking for a native breed of pig, Nick Padwick chose the Tamworth because of their hardiness and, with their long snouts, their ability to dig well into the soil.

First to arrive were four barren sows, followed by an in-pig sow which gave birth to six piglets. Hetty Grant is Wild Ken Hill’s Conservation Manager and she oversees the work of the pigs. She says: “The pigs live outdoors all year round and we only supplementary feed occasionally in the summer if the ground gets too hard for them to dig. The original sows we bought in did find foraging a little difficult at first as they weren’t used to the sort of environment they were introduced to. However, it’s really interesting to see that the piglets that were born into our system were onto a winner from the start. Having been born to the lifestyle, they are smaller and more compact and have grown thicker coats. And while the older sows, who were previously used to human contact, will happily come up to the fence for a scratch, the ones born here don’t interact so much.”

Working alongside Wild Ken Hill’s 45 Red Poll cattle and 26 Exmoor ponies, the role of the Tamworths is primarily rewilding, although Hetty says that there may also be a move in the future to breeding and selling meat boxes. In terms of the job they were taken on to do, Hetty reports that they are already helping to bring the sward back to its natural state. She says: “As they root into the ground, the pigs are releasing seeds that have been trapped within the soil. I can actually pinpoint some of the areas where the pigs have been at work because there are now patches of Scarlet Pimpernel which are so prolific that they look as though they have been deliberately planted.”

Mapperton Wildland

Following on from the supply of pigs to Wild Ken Hill, Caroline was then contacted by Nick Padwick’s son Ben, who is the ranger at the Mapperton Wildland, part of the Mapperton Estate where a project to rewild over 800 acres of marginal farmland and woodland is underway. Here the pigs are working alongside White Park cattle and Exmoor ponies.

Home of Viscount and Viscountess Hinchingbrooke, Mapperton is a 1,900 acre estate in west Dorset, consisting of five farms with a mix of arable, dairy, pasture and woodlands, set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Traditionally managed over hundreds of years, 20th century intensification had led to large-scale changes in the landscape with loss of wood pastures, scrub, deciduous woodland and natural pasture with intensive arable leading to soil degradation.

Inspired by the success of the Knepp Estate in Sussex, where rewilding was pioneered in the UK, and following consultancy from Knepp in 2020, the Estate embarked on a change to its approach to land management which, like Wild Ken Hill, would see a combination of rewilding, traditional conservation and regenerative agriculture. Alongside this, the Mapperton Estate has looked to increasing access to its countryside for visitors and the local community.

Explaining the use of the Tamworths in Mapperton Wildland, Ben Padwick says: “It was always the intention to introduce pigs but we weren’t sure which breed. However, at Wild Ken Hill my father was a couple of years ahead of us and I was able to draw on his experience with the Tamworths. One thing we have to consider here is that there is all sorts of public access for the livestock to contend with – people, dogs, horses – and we particularly liked the temperament of the Tamworths, which are very friendly.

“We bought two sows from Caroline – one barren and one in-pig which went on to give birth in the open. 
We are finding them to be a very hardy breed and while we are supplementary 
feeding, we’re making sure it’s low protein to encourage them to forage. It took a while for them to adapt having previously been used to being fed and, although they did lose some weight, this was balanced out as they put on more muscle and became fitter.

“The piglets proved to be more natural rooters and while we are still handling the pigs to a degree, we are trying to ‘wild’ them as much as possible. At the same time, we’re not just leaving them to it and will medicate if needed – we are going for quality of life for them.”

Again, the Tamworths are proving well up to the rewilding job, rooting in areas of poor grazing previously home to sheep and cattle, to aid natural regeneration. Ben has found that the pigs are releasing seed from beneath strong grasses and, through their digestive systems, they are acting as natural seed spreaders. He says: “Since having the Tamworths, we can see real changes in the areas that they are helping to rewild. In fact, they have had the most dramatic impact of any of the livestock that we are using. For example, in the summer, we moved them to a wetter field and their rooting around has resulted in ground nesting bird activity probably ten times higher than in other areas.”

At the outset of the rewilding project there had been plans to cross native pigs with wild boar but as Ben explains, this is no longer on the agenda. He says: “When they arrived, I was really surprised at how very similar the Tamworths were to boar. In hindsight, I’m glad we stuck to the Tamworths – I have a distinct feeling that if we had brought in wild boar, we might have released them and never seen them again. The Tamworths, though, are very chilled and everyone who has seen them has loved them.”

While the primary role of the Tamworths at Mapperton Wildland is to help in the rewilding, there are also plans to breed for meat. Ben says: “The end goal is to put meat through our café for our visitors but in the meantime with 550 acres of land to rewild, they have plenty of work to do.” 

For Caroline Wheatley-Hubbard, who has always been a strong promoter of the Tamworth, this is a significant opportunity for the breed. She says: “To have found a new market for Tamworths is exciting and positive and I am personally thrilled to find an outlet for our ‘older ladies’. Since my retirement from the main farm, alongside our pigman retiring, I am trying to keep six lines going with just six sows. Hopefully rewilding sales will mean that the herd will continue well into the next decades and that I shall not be sending old sows off for sausages, rather enabling them to live out their days doing what Tamworths do best – just digging!”

 Photo: Mapperton Tamworth