Thursday , June 13 2024



he that hath sheep, swine and bees, sleep he, wake, he, may thrive“.

“This little piggy went to market and this little piggy stayed at home …”, and it wasn’t that long ago that most homes kept a pig to provide a source of much needed winter meat. Dartmoor was no exception where many of the farms and cotts would fatten one or more pigs throughout the year. People today would probably have a fit if they were served up some of the old fashioned cuts of pork. My favourite was the ‘Bath Chap’ which came from the pig’s cheek, this was rolled and coated in breadcrumbs. Pig stickin’ time was always a lurid affair when all the various cuts were prepared and either smoked or salted down. It used to fascinate me to watch the pig’s head bubbling and bouncing around the large pan on the Aga, this was destined to be brawn. Then there were thick rashers of bacon that used to be about a quarter of an inch thick and 4 or 5 inches wide and comprised of white fat with half inch streaks of meat running through them. I can hear the screams now as the cholesterol levels shoot sky high but you could put a rasher of that bacon into a pan and it virtually came out the same size. Do that to many of the so-called healthy lean rashers and you will be lucky to get a third of the size.

It is a known fact that wild boar have roamed Dartmoor for millennia and it is from these that the domestic pig descends. Ironically after centuries of absence from the moor it seems there is now several herds of wild boar who have escaped captivity and are re-establishing themselves.

Possibly some of the earliest evidence for pig keeping on Dartmoor can be found in place-name evidence. The old Anglo Saxon word spic translates as ‘bacon’, (Clark Hall, 2004, p.315) and can be found in the first element of Spitchwick, the wic element refers to a ‘dwelling place’, (Clark Hall, p.406), thus suggesting a dwelling where pigs were kept. Another example is the small hamlet of Leusdon where the name derives again from the Anglo Saxon word hlose meaning ‘pig sty’, (Clark Hall, p.187) and denn, (Clark Hall, p.84), which denotes a ‘swine pasture’, a clear indication that pigs were kept here. Having said that, Gover et al, (1998, p.527) consider that the name derived from Lewenston, the elements being Lewen, ‘Lëofwine’s and tun meaning ‘farm’ thus giving ‘Lëofwine’s Farm’. But even then substitute the ‘f’ in Lëofswine for a ‘s’ and you easily get Leo’s Swine Farm. On the north side of Middle tor there is a prehistoric field system, included in this is a parallel reave that runs southwards known as Pigshill Droke. The name ‘Pigswell’ is mentioned in a 13th century document and refers to a farm near Teigncombe and some adjacent lands, these presumably being the ‘Droke’, (Hemery, 1983, p.760). Later examples include; Pig Lane, The Pig’s House and Swine Down.

The right of pannage, whereby pigs were allowed to forage in woodland or the forest in search of beech mast and acorns was an age-old custom of the moor. In many cases this privilege had to be paid for on an annual basis, the rents being due on or around Michaelmas. In the 1400s Tavistock Abbey was charging twopence a head for the rights of pannage on their lands. It is known from old abbey records that in 1413 the pannage of Parkwood was returning nineteen shillings a year, (Finberg, 1969, p.132), this suggests that there were 114 pigs rooting around that particular woodland. Stanes, (2005, p.132) notes how at the time of the Domesday survey in 1086 the county of Devon recorded the highest number of swine herds in the country.

William Cobbett in his book The Cottage economy states the following;

If a hog be more than a year old he is the better for it. Make him quite fat by all means. The last bushel, even if he sit as he eat, is the most profitable. If he can walk two hundred yards at a time; he is not well fatted. Lean bacon is the most wasteful thing a family can use. In short, it is uneatable except by drunkards, who want something to stimulate their sickly appetite.“.

On a more local level it is interesting to note what Marshall says in his book of 1796 (1970, p.255 – 258) when he comments that:

In the REARING of Swine, the most remarkable circumstance is that of letting all the females remain open; and for a very sufficient reason: there is not a Spayer, even of Pigs in the District of West Devonshire“.

He also considers that the native breed of the county take a long time to fatten, anything between 18 and 24 months. He also points out that in an effort to improve the breed, Sir Francis Drake had imported the Berkshire pig to the county. This breed of pig was capable of fattening out at 9 months thus providing a greater profit. Apparently another singularity of Devon was the practice of keeping the pig in a, “narrow close hutch in which they eat, drink and discharge their faeces”. This soon provided a mud bath to lay in which over time hardened on their backs and stayed there until killing out. The reasoning behind this practice was that, “fat pigs should lie wet; it keeps them cool: they are not of a hot nature, and if they lie on dry warm litter , it melts their fat. Maybe the animal welfare people would have something to say about that should the practice have continued. The diet of the pigs seems to have been refuse from the dairy fed along with boiled turnips, clover and grass. As the animals got larger the diet would consist of mainly grass which in some cases they got from grazing alongside the cows. The pigs would be allowed to fatten until they were between 2 – 3 years because, “… bacon of old hogs goes father, than that made from young ones; not calculating the expense of keeping them to that extravagant age“.

Writing a few years later in 1818, Vancouver (1969, pp 355 – 6) describes the native breed as:

growing to a large size, stands high upon its legs, lengthy, of a large and course bone, flat sided, and in its store state seldom seen in any thing like tolerable condition; but proper time being allowed, will commonly fatten to six score per quarter“.

As can be seen, he too notes how much longer the native breed takes to fatten but contradicts Marshall somewhat by suggesting the breed was improved by firstly introducing the Leicester breed and then at a later date the Chinese breed. Both types providing a beast that fattens out in half the time. Vancouver found a somewhat different ration for the pigs insomuch as they were being fed a meal of two thirds boiled or steamed potatoes along with one third ground pease and barley.

This highly varied gene-pool also led in the late 1800s to the emergence of the Devon Black which was a hardy and efficient meat producing animal. It was highly suited to the ‘outdoor’ life and because of its colouring suffered much less from sun burn etc that the white breeds. The British Lop breed was said to have originated from the Tavistock area and is thought to be a mixture of Devon Lop and the Cornish White, so close is the breeding that the Devon Lop are often referred to as the British Lop. This breed is now considered to be the rarest of our traditional breeds with only 135 registered sows on the book in 2005.


Peasant & Pigs, Devon Lop and Large Black – G. Morland

It was not uncommon for many moorland farms and cotts to keep one or more pigs for both home consumption and meat sales. Many of the old farms have remnants of the pig sty with their granite troughs. Woods (2003, p.117) relates how their was a tradition whereby poles would be erected in the sty to allow the chickens to roost of a night. The thinking behind this was that they would be safe from the predations of the fox as the smell of pigs was one thing the fox did his best to avoid. In the case of the cott hogs these would be allowed to scavenge around the house and the lanes. In order to stop them churning up grazing pastures a copper ring would be put through their noses. Either way the success of the pig was vital for many families as it was their winter meat supply. Everything possible was done to see that the ‘yard hog’ remained fat and healthy. Even when the time for dispatch came there were many observances to be carried out. It was said that the pig must be killed at the time of a full moon, any later then meat won’t cure and it will shrink when cooked. The process of dispatching the beast was a very ritualistic affair, in some areas the neighbours would all attend to assist and partake of some liquid hospitality. Ever heard the expression, “squealed like a stuck pig”? well that is no understatement as the noise of the pig was deafening. As a youngster I have heard that desperate noise but was considered too young to watch. Then the day came when it was deemed I was old enough to attend the pig sticking, a passage or rites or what, it felt just the same as when I was allowed to have a pint of beer. There were many variations on dispatching the pig which ranged from sitting it on a stool and slitting its throat to simply pole-axing it but whichever method was used the blood was collected in a huge basin. The carcass was then scalded with hot water and all the bristles scraped off, once this was done the pig was then hung up and left for a day or two. If you visit the Chris Chapman website and go to page 6 of the gallery there is a brilliant picture from 1978 of a slaughtered pig at Batworthy farm – visit HERE. Then the animal was gutted and all the entrails washed, cleaned and turned inside out then soaked in salt water, rinsed and kept for three days in a bucket. The various joints were then cut up and salted down. The head went into a large pan and boiled, the brain eventually ended up as brawn and the cheeks as chap. The offal was usually cooked and eaten fairly quickly and in fact the only part of the pig that wasn’t used in some way or another was the squeak, even the bladder was at one time used as a football. What meat the immediate family did not use was generally shared out with the neighbours who when their pig killing time came would reciprocate the gesture.

It is in living memory that the practice of keeping the cott hog died out, I can clearly remember on the morning of the village fete having to go to a nearby farm to collect a piglet. This was dumped in a sack and was hauled screaming back to the green to become the first prize in the ‘Bowling for a Pig’ stall. This was simply a skittles competition where the highest score won the pig, and a very welcomed prize it was too. I am not so sure how welcomed a prize it would be these days as many people wouldn’t know what to do with it. I saw a similar sight last year when the prize for the weekly pub quiz was a brace of pheasants and nobody wanted them either.

In the 2000 agricultural survey of Dartmoor it was reported that within the National Park their was 3,345 hectares used for pigs on a total of 61 holdings. To put this in perspective there were 52,899 hectares on 547 holdings for cattle and 239,930 hectares on 498 holdings for sheep.

Superstition-wise it was said that if the pigs were hurtling around their sty or carrying straw in their mouths then it was a sure sign that rain was on its way. If a pig ever crossed your path then this was said to be an omen of impending bad luck. The only way of averting this was to turn away until it had gone by. Any bride who on her way to the church spotted a pig may as well turn around and go home for to do so meant bad luck for the couple would follow. One way of ridding yourself of a wart was to peel an apple and then rub it over the offending blemish then simply feed the apple to a pig. One old saying which alludes to the pig’s lack of fear towards humans was; “a cat looks down on a man, a dogs looks up to a man but a pig will look him straight in the eye”. There is a famous ghostly pig that haunts the lanes around Merripit and Postbridge and another black one at Lydford Castle who is said to be the spirit of Judge Jeffries.


Clark Hall, J. R. 2004 A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Univ. of Toronto Press, London.

Finberg, H. P. R. 1969 Tavistock Abbey, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Hemery, E. 1983 High Dartmoor, Hale Publishing, London.

Marshall, W. 1970 Rural Economy of the West of England, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.

Stanes, R. 2005 Old Farming Days, Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.

Wood, S. 2003 Dartmoor Farm, Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.

Vancouver, C. 1969 General View of the Agriculture of the County of Devonshire, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.