Everyone knows about the New Forest’s world-famous free-roaming ponies. But did you know we also have free-roaming pigs?
For around two months from Monday 19 September, these adorable creatures snuffle and grunt their way through the woodland, feasting on all the fallen acorns, beech mast and chestnuts.
Pannage, or Common of Mast as it is properly known, is one of the six ancient rights afforded to New Forest Commoners and it started for entirely practical reasons. The Normans knew that acorns were harmful to the ponies if eaten in quantity and solved the problem by getting pigs to do the work instead.
A pig will pick up an acorn, crack it like a nut and eat the kernel after spitting out the harmful skin, whereas if ponies eat too many green acorns, the tannins in them can destroy their liver.
The timing of Pannage is slightly different every year, depending on the acorn crop, and its dates are decided by the Court of Verderers, who sit in their own ancient courthouse in Lyndhurst, the New Forest’s ‘capital’.
This year, around 600 pigs be released onto the forest on Monday 19 September and will remain on the forest every day until Friday 18 November. But, unlike the ponies, you won’t see them at night because the porkers all return to their homes at the end of each day.
There’s another difference, too. New Forest ponies are a sole, recognised breed, whereas Pannage pigs can be anything from a furry ginger Tamworth, to a Gloucester Old Spot or a Saddleback.
All pigs at Pannage have their own ear tag and a nose-ring to limit ground damage by rooting and should be treated as if they were wild animals. They are usually fine with being watched or photographed from a distance – look out for them on Instagram! - but you should never approach them too closely, or attempt to touch or feed them.
Remember, too, to keep your dog on a lead, especially if you can see or hear the piglets. Pannage pigs are very protective of their young and on rare occasions they can bite.
Because they roam freely, it’s often hard to find them but, if you’re walking through the woodland, listen out for their grunts and squeals. They love areas which are dense with oak or beech trees so the Knightwood Oak Trail or the areas around Bolderwood are good, too.
Look out for them around some of the villages, too – Bramshaw is considered a good bet – as they will occasionally wander through, and an image of a sow and her piglets is a picture to treasure!
However, as they are considered livestock there is another way to enjoy Pannage pigs – and that’s on the table. Their meat, which can be ordered in advance from reputable New Forest butchers, is highly prized for its distinctive taste and slightly marbled appearance.
More importantly, it can be eaten in the knowledge that unlike a lot of foreign imports, the livestock has lived and eaten as nature intended – outdoors and roaming free.
*For more information about Pannage visit thenewforest.co.uk