My children tease me about my imaginary pig. Melody even chose a little wooden pig for me as a Christmas present. It’s sitting on the shelf above one of the pop-up desks (aka camping tables) we are using for home-learning. The idea that I would like to populate our wood with pigs has stuck for some reason – probably, if I am honest, because there is some truth in it. Not a whole drove of pigs you understand, just two or three.
Our wood needs some areas of woodland pasture, glades of clear ground beneath mature trees. A varied habitat type increases the variety of species able to live in the wood, and open spaces encourage flowering plants, so attracting butterflies, moths and birds that otherwise would not find a home under the thick canopy. Once, there would have been clearings in our wood kept open by grazing; records show that the right to pannage (that is the right to release livestock into a wood to feed on fallen acorns and beechmast) was granted in return for payment in woods nearby. It is likely this will have been the case in our wood too, but now this practice has died out, the structure of our wood has changed. Now, the only open spaces found are places where trees have fallen in the last couple of years, leaving a temporary hole in the canopy.
The ecological restoration of woodland pasture is beginning to be recognised as a good thing, and recently the controlled grazing of woodland has been attempted using cattle, ponies and sheep. But in mediaeval times, pigs were a very common sight running free in the woods. In the autumn pigs were fattened on the oak and beech mast, a food which has a high calorific value. The practice is commonly recorded in mediaeval manuscripts, but is also frequently seen in mediaeval art, an example being the Queen Mary Psalter (1310-20) which shows two swine herds hitting the trees with sticks in order to knock the mast to the ground for their pigs. Pigs were an important driver in the creation of mediaeval woodland pasture. As they root about, they turn over the ground so that the seed bank is exposed and flowering plants can germinate; pigs also dig up rhizomes of bracken and bramble, stopping them becoming dominant, so allowing flowering plants the access to the light they need. Although they eat grass, pigs do not cut it right down to the ground as sheep would, nor do they damage saplings by ripping off the young leaves as cattle would. The foraging of pigs would have to be managed; clearly too much foraging and digging over the ground would cause problems too, but pigs do seem to have had a role in the cultural landscape of the past, and I feel there is merit in allowing them them to fulfil that role again to recreate that landscape.
I think the children may be disappointed. While I would really love to see pigs in the wood, I realise that pig husbandry at a distance would not be straight forward. For now at least, I think I’ll have to stick to my wooden pig. But who knows – never say never…