The Oxford Pigs
…The time we learned that pigs can swim
Like many of you COVID took us by storm. Our sales went through the roof so much so that it became very obvious that we would run out of pork by the Spring of 2021 unless we changed things up. Breeding is a slow process so we went searching for hogs just weaned that we could raise and process by February or so of 2021.
Of course, we weren’t the only niche, pasture-based producers with the same concerns which made finding hogs virtually impossible. By a stroke of luck/timing we were able to locate 6 piglets from an ad on Craigslist (we don’t usually buy animals on CL but we were desperate) then, shortly afterwards, another 25 from a breeder recommended by a friend.
The farm was in Oxford, about 30mins northeast of us, and, after a nice conversation with the young woman who had bred them, we were feeling a lot more comfortable about our Craigslist find.
The farm was a small homestead situation with a few 20 somethings and a parent making a go of farming. We picked up the healthy, robust, much smaller than expected, very WILD piglets and headed home feeling pretty clever about finding feeders when all our farmer friends were still scrambling. What could go wrong?
I’ve mentioned our “jail” paddock before. Right now we have 2 naughty cows, 4 quarantining ewes (with lambs) and one totally confused cow all living with our geriatric emu, George in “jail”. Last year at this time, the cows were behaving themselves, Imogen had yet to steal Holly’s calf and the ewes weren’t even in the planning stage. George was the only inhabitant, unless you count the chickens that visit throughout the day (they drive George insane, he chases them all off just to have them walk through the gates as soon as he loses his train of thought…..which is often. Poor George. He’s not aggressive, just grouchy).
We had a smaller area under cover set up ahead of time for them until we could assess their health and allow them to get used to their surroundings before letting them out into the larger fenced area.
Instead of backing the trailer to their new area we decided they would be easy enough to catch and carry the little piggies, saving us having to worry about George (he gets distracted by shiny things easily and has removed the wiper blades from the wipers on the truck more than once).
These piggies were seriously freaked out which is not our usual experience with hogs. In our experience hogs tend to have a lot of swagger and attitude being more inclined to outsmart rather than bolt in sheer terror. Not to worry, I thought, let’s get them in their area with food, water and some apples and they’ll settle in. We just need to let them be and all will be well.
I’m not exactly sure how the first piglet escaped from their new area, but he did. Luckily, he was still enclosed in the main area, so long as he didn’t figure out that he could easily fit through the gate rungs. We had plenty of time to catch him and why would he run away from his littermates, anyway? We decided to unload the others hoping we could just corral him in once the others were situated.
Sighing, I realized this was not going to be a rapid unload and that my afternoon plans might need to be adjusted.
Scott and I made some quick adjustments to the fence, adding another layer of green plastic deer fence to the inside of their area. We all gave it the once over and agreed there was no way the next Oxford pig was escaping.
Owen (our youngest), Scott and I headed back to the trailer to finish the move. It was a hiccup but it wasn’t that big of a deal, all would be sorted out in the end.
I opened the trailer door ready to step in when a tan blur jumped out of the trailer using my left hip as a launching pad and took off at speed across the driveway, through the fence and into the woods. We watched in disbelief as our 6 piglets became 4, we weren’t doing very well. I was seriously wishing the older 2 kids were around….we needed reinforcements.
After a quick consultation, the general consensus was to move forward and deal with the escapees later.
We headed back to the trailer, cautiously opened the door, saw the remaining four in the far corner, jumped in and caught our next piglet. This time the set up looked like it would hold right up until the little guy wiggled under the green deer fence then out of the cattle panel. Luckily, it joined its mate in the far corner of the big pasture.
I’ll take a second here to catch everyone up. Two experienced animal handlers (combined we have over half a century of experience and have worked with everything from African antelope to primates to big cats all before the ripe old age of 24yrs) have just allowed one piglet to escape from their escape proof pen, opened a trailer door wide open letting another to run free (rookie move), then these same experienced livestock farmers allowed a 3rd pig to escape from their reinforced escape proof pen. Humble pie anyone? No? I guess Scott and I will eat and try and enjoy it. It was tasting a bit like ashes at that point.
A few more adjustments were made to the fence then back to the trailer for pig #4. Happily, numbers four, five and six were successfully transferred, contained and settled in to enjoy their treats. Our confidence lifted a little then lifted once more with the successful trapping and grabbing (by Owen) of escapee #3. Only 2 left to go, escapee #1 who was still contained in the paddock and escapee #2 who had been spotted in the thin section of woods between pastures.
The plan was to catch escapee #1 who was an easy mark then get behind escapee #2 pushing her back towards her litter mates and hopefully ensnare her in some way yet to be determined. We all agreed this was the way to approach it.
We started out fairly well, we had our little fella headed in the right direction and almost in a promisingly solid corner where there would be no escape, Owen was poised to run in and catch him up before he knew what had happened. We had a good plan but as is often the case with good plans a wild card was played…..George.
I think I’ve mentioned that George isn’t fond of small animals of any kind, predator or not. He barely tolerates the chickens and frequently chases them out of his area. This is a bit of a change for him. When we first moved onto this property, we kept him for a time in a corral panel pen outside the chicken’s coop. We had been having terrible fox predation issues and he solved them. He was also very tolerant of the chickens passing in and out underfoot. During this time we referred to him as ‘King of the Chickens’. That period of domestic bliss with him defaulting to his previous less tolerant persona.
When he saw that little sausage of a pig and knew it was not where it was meant to be and decided to help us out by chasing escapee #1 in the opposite direction, away from the solid corner and Owen who was poised to pounce. George was quite pleased with himself as he took a victory lap around the paddock.
With George’s sudden interest, escapee #1 ran into the corner we were trying to keep him out of (the one that would be easy for him to run through) and promptly got his round frame caught in one of the small holes in the cattle panels. Scott ran over and grabbed for one of the back feet begging to be grabbed but #1 refocused his efforts, broke free taking the same path #2 had taken only 30mins before. Thanks George!
This is where our years of experience came into play (good thing too, they hadn’t been much help up to this point). We knew that 2 pigs might never come back but one lonely pig would eventually make its way back to the others. We had to catch at least one of these pigs, didn’t matter which one, it just had to be at least one of them. Since #2 was nowhere to be seen we took off after #1.
Piglets are FAST! I cannot overemphasize this point. He had cleared the woods and was still going full speed across the pasture by the time Owen and I had even entered the woods. Scott jumped in the Mule (our side by side UTV) and took off down the driveway out into the road to stop the little booger from crossing the road. Didn’t work.
As Owen and I got to the road we saw Scott chasing the piglet through our neighbor’s newly turned fields trying desperately to get in front of him thus turning him back towards our property and the barn.
As we watched, trying to see if the mule could outrun the piggie (it couldn’t) we saw the pig wade out into the pond will complete confidence as if he was taking his daily dip. Scott ran round the back side of the pond to prevent him from getting out the other side and taking off again. At least we had him cornered…..sort of.
It was quite the sight, Scott in the Mule racing along the pond embankment, the little piglet in the middle of 2 acres of water looking pretty confident and sure of himself paddling away. My first thought was “I hope a snapper doesn’t get him” my second thought was “I wish we owned a canoe” (anybody have a canoe they don’t use much? We’re interested).
Escapee #1 got close to the opposite bank and pulled himself into the floating weeds along the edge of the pond. We all closed in on him as quickly as we could, Owen and I from one side and Scott in the Mule from the other. Just as we were hoping to get close enough to get a hand on him the little stinker jumped back into the pond heading out at a 90 degree angle away from the lot of us. This happened once or twice more until it became obvious escapee #1 was coming to the end of both his energy and his adrenaline.
He reached the edge closest to the woods (which just happened to be the edge closest to our farm) pulled himself out of the pond and rested in the reeds. We had avoided it up to this point (and were completely unprepared for) but the time had come to get in the water and try and surround him. Yeah, we had him surrounded. I slowly walked towards him up to my knees in muddy water almost losing my garden shoes in the deep muck that is always found in farm ponds around here. Owen was doing the same thing from the opposite direction. I was so close to getting him, I could feel the heat radiating from his body and hear his rapid breathing. I felt a pang of pity and as I crouched in the shallow water and prepared myself to pounce. How scared he must be. He had no idea we had apples, food, water, fresh straw and marshmallows waiting for him at home, poor little guy.
He took advantage of my moment of weakness and ran past me into a huge briar patch leaving me muttering expletives which included how I was going to cook his bacon (couldn’t help that…sorry).
We tried everything to get him out but he just went deeper and deeper.
These were not normal thorns. They were at least a half an inch long and formed an impenetrable thicket for bipeds. After a good 20min of trying to get to him, I looked at Scott and said that none of us were leaving until that piglet was caught. Scott sighed, was able to stomp the briars down enough to walk over the top of the mass (it was like a deck) until he was positioned over the piglet. He still couldn’t see him but from my position I could and was able to guide him in. He finally made visual contact and after a pause for the pain that was surely to follow reached into the briar patch and pulled the piglet out by the only thing he could reach…..his ears. I was ready to support his bottom and grab his feet. The piglet, not Scott.
The noise was deafening…..and didn’t stop. We drove back to the barn with #1 screaming all the way.
Scott says after we got back I had a bit of a Raquel Welch One Million Years BC vibe going on. My pants were shredded and heading for the trash. Pigs (mostly) corralled we went into poison ivy decontamination mode. Did I mention I’m deathly allergic and it was everywhere around the pond?
Escapee #2 reappeared the next day and hung out with the pet pigs for a couple of days. They didn’t much care for her but she wasn’t going anywhere. Garett slowly gained her confidence until he was able to make a grab attempt (successful) and put her where she belonged.
Later that day after taking a seriously hot and long shower to remove the stench of the pond and any poison ivy essential oils I posted the above photo on Instagram. What monsters! The next 25 were as delightful, pleasant and civilized as these pigs were not.
And I didn’t get poison ivy.