British Swine Breeds
The Berkshire pig was once known as the Black Pig and is mentioned in the famed Book of Household Management, written by Mrs Beeton. She cites the Berkshire, Cumberland, Essex and York as the best native breeds and the Chinese as the best foreign breed.
Among other comments, Mrs Beeton states that the Black Pig has a fineness and delicacy of the skin, is less affected by heat in summer, far less subject to cuticular disease, has a kindlier nature and greater aptitude to fatten.
The excellent carcass quality of the Berkshire has always been known and envied. Soon after the establishment of the breed, several were sent to Okinawa (then known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu). These animals made such an impression that more were bought. The Japanese Kurobuta pig has much Berkshire blood running in its veins. The Japanese like the rich, tender meat of the Berkshire.
The first documented evidence of the Berkshire appears around Cromwell's time (1599 – 1658). At that time, the pigs were reddish, sometimes spotted and native to the shire of Berks (now Oxfordshire). It had a reputation even then for the quality of its meat. East Asian black pigs were crossed with the Berkshire and the improved breed characteristics became established. The Berkshire is now black with white 'point's, ie having white markings on the ear tips, nose, feet and tail.
They have prick ears which sit erect or incline slightly forwards, a dished face, large jowl and medium length, dished snouts. The short neck is fine and free of wrinkles. The short legs are stocky and straight and the underline is straight. The body is very deep-sided with a strong, arched back and muscular frame. Mature animals weigh around 600 pounds. They have an excellent temperament and are friendly and curious.
The Berkshire is hardy and performs well outdoors. It is not as suited to confinement as breeds such as the Duroc, Hampshire and Yorkshire.
The dark colour helps protect against sunburn. The sows have good maternal instincts and have a slightly longer farrowing period than some breeds. Berkshires have a gestation period of around 116 days compared to the Yorkshire's 112 days. The piglets are vigorous and active.
Windsor Castle had a large Berkshire herd. In the early 1800s, the Berkshire pig found its way to the United States. The American Berkshire Association was established in 1875 and was the first breeders' group and swine registry in the world. All its registered animals trace back to English hogs or to imported English hogs. The Berkshire and Yorkshire Society of Australasia was formed in 1909 and had its headquarters in Melbourne.
Because of the high fat content of the meat, the Berkshire went out of favour. This same characteristic has seen it regain its popularity as a basis for the manufacture of smallgoods. White-skinned breeds have a thinner layer of sub-cutaneous fat and less intra-muscular fat. One company to take advantage of this trait is the Black Pig brand of smallgoods which has taken off in Australia. Eighteen month to two year old Berkshires are used to produce bacon, prosciutto, sopressa and chorizo. The meat is pink-hued. Long cooking and high-temperature cooking suit Berkshire cuts because of the high fat content.
The Berkshire is one of Great Britain's indigenous livestock breeds and is now regarded as rare. In Britain, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust maintains a herd at Aldenham Country Park, Hertfordshire and another at the South of England Rare Breeds Centre in Kent. There are fewer than 300 breeding sows and its status is classified as 'vulnerable'. In New Zealand, there are probably fewer than 100 purebred sows.