Free range farming
At Pheasants Hill Farm we produce our own rare breed free-range pork, bacon, hams, rare breed lamb and free range eggs. In addition we butcher and supply local grass fed traditional Irish breeds of beef, lamb, venison and poultry suited to the Northern Ireland environment.
We look after a herd of 150 Tamworth and Gloucester Old Spots pigs. The early part of each day is taken up with feeding the pigs, who live outdoors all year round in small arks. Our pigs mature slowly at their natural pace. The breeding sows and boars are kept for all their natural lives, even when they have stopped producing litters. Our pigs routinely live to about 10 years old, and are only humanely put down when they become too ill through extreme old age in pig terms. Contrast this with commercial pork production where the sows are considered over the hill at 2 or 3 years old and are routinely despatched because it isn’t considered economic to feed them.
Our pigs are reared outdoors. The sows and their piglets are allowed to root and roam as nature intended. They live all their lives in their small family groups, so as to maintain social structures, with mobile houses to provide shelter and security. The piglets stay with their mothers as long as possible and are only weaned at about 14 weeks. This produces strong piglets, with in-built disease resistance. Because the pigs root in the soil outdoors, they take in all their mineral requirements naturally, and (unlike indoor reared pigs) need no iron injections or routine antibiotics, and live healthy and relaxed lives without the need for any human interference.
Our pigs reared for meat are allowed to grow to maturity and the females are generally left to have a litter before they are culled. This means that the average age at which one of our pigs is killed is about 52 weeks. Compare this to commercial pig production where pigs are killed at 24 weeks old. The age at which a pig is killed is critical to the quality of meat – slowly reared free range pork will show the characteristics of mature meat – it will be dark, because the animals have been able to root in the soil to get iron naturally, it will be lean because they have exercised, and it will have the full flavour of a mature animal, not the bland taste of an overfed immature animal. Indoor reared pork, of both commercial and rare breeds, will be pale, because indoor reared animals are anaemic, and the meat will contain a lot of liquid – the sign that the animal has not had a chance to exercise normally and has been overfed to stimulate unnaturally rapid growth.
We also keep some laying hens, mainly Dorkings. There is a pond, and an old orchard that has been restored with traditional varieties of plums, damsons, apples and pears. Hedges are not cut annually, but left to grow into mature trees and provide barriers for pigs and sheep, windbreaks and shelter, passageways and food for animals and birds. Some of our hedges are 100 years old. We also maintain the species rich pasture of our fields by avoiding ploughing and just overseeding bare patches annually with an organic grass, herb and clover seed mix.