Of course the pig would have to choose a windy, icy night on which to birth out. It just had to be 3am after I’d been ill for a few days. Her milk just had to come in on the night Stephen had to work late and she just had to be in the wrong field and we just had to herd her into the farrowing barn through the ice and wind instead of being cosy and warm by the fire like normal people.
No it doesn’t ring true, so I should just let it go. Normal people don’t put their hand inside a 600lb sow at 3.45am on a Wednesday in March to retrieve tangled piglets and bring them gasping into the world. But if I didn’t I wouldn’t get to hold squiggling bundles as they feel cold air for the first time, and are propelled by every instinct in their tiny bodies towards the milky safety of their Mama. I wouldn’t get to feel the powerful pulse of life, working along side an animal that trusts me, gently but firmly pulling breech birth babies out by the tail while sweating in the frigid night air.
I don’t think normal is my bag.
Normal sounds quite appealing when things go badly, like several hours earlier when I was riddled with stress and panic, wondering if we could coax our ready-to-birth sow across the line she’d learned to avoid and respect. If we could get her to walk across the now massive seeming pasture and into the safety of the farrowing barn, where she and her babies would be safe. Because let me tell you, that pig does not go anywhere she doesn’t want to.
In the end ‘we’ didn’t. Stephen did. The relationship he has with that pig really does astound me, and so he coaxed her carefully in to the barn where she could birth in safety and her piglets could be coddled and healthy. Putting my arm up a pig’s birth canal was peanuts in comparison to that, I’m really not kidding.
Our clever girl birthed 13 piglets, a beautiful mix of black, Berkshire striped and spotty ones. They couldn’t be prettier and we sighed with relief when she cleared the second after birth and stood up for a drink. In September her birthing had been so hard we wondered if she could be a Mama again, but our vet was confident and I’m so glad we took her advice. Mrs B was a super champ and has been the most content with this litter that I have ever seen. In her purpose built pen she can see her babies as they cosy up under the heat lamps in their special ‘creep’ box. They can get out of her way as she gets cosy and moves around, then she lies down (along protective boards that give piglets places to hide) with her udder facing them and oinks for them to come to dinner. It’s the loveliest scene you can imagine.
And while I like to tell people about the lovely bits, there are sad bits too. Pigs have lots of babies because they are not all expected to make it. We’ve worked very hard to create an environment that minimises the risk of crushing and keeps the babies safe and warm. The pen allows Mrs B freedom of movement (unlike farrowing crates) and when they are all napping under the heat lamps she gets to rest and recover.
But as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall said, ‘Sometimes we don’t get to play God. Sometimes God does.’
One of the piglets, one we dubbed ‘squealer’ because she was shrieky from minute one, started to show signs of struggle early. I was out with the kids when Stephen called to tell me she was looking really weak, she seemed to have had some kind of stroke. He wisely brought her inside and kept her warm and cosy, secretly hoping she might bounce back. She died on our bed in the sunshine; the warmth of the house and a gentle departure was the best we could offer her.
The next day, when I was doing my bi-hourly check of the piglets, I found another little one down. She was the runt of the litter, half the size of the others and had struggled from minute one. Somehow she’d managed to wriggle herself under the slide board during the birthing process and was cold as a stone when we found her there. While we assisted Mrs B we’d kept her in our jackets, close to our bodies, to warm her. After a session with me by the fire she’d perked up and returned to her Mama. When I found her she was cold and still, barely breathing. I sighed with heavy heart and brought her in.
Warming her up was the priority so I dug out the sling I used to carry the boys in and tucked her in there with a heat pack. She staying snuggled in for hours and, much to my surprise, carried on breathing. No one sells pig milk replacer in our area, but our vet had told us that kitten milk might work. We duly purchased some and began to syringe feed the little one in the hopes of giving her strength.
Syringe feeding can be a risky business, if you get it wrong the piglet will aspirate and die, so slow and steady is the order of the day. After a good feed we graduated her to a heat pad by the fire, a cosy blanket was her bed and we placed a heat pack next to her to simulate her family. Piglets are not meant to be alone and she duly snuggled it with all her strength. In between feeds she slept flat out, breathing softly, the rest of her still.
The tide began to turn around 10.30pm when, after moving her to our bedroom for night feeding, I came in to find her out of her box and having a power show down with one of our cats. She squealed and stood her ground fiercely, I’ve never seen a cat look so confused. That feed was different, she was more wriggly and demanding, sucking down the milk ferociously and with determination. Around 11.30 she demanded more and again around 2. By 5am, when she began to refuse the milk and took up biting me instead; I decided that she was ready to return to Mama. And so she did.
Mrs B, champion mother that she is, welcomed her back with a happy oink and nothing more. I think she is so used to us that our smell did not alarm her, we sighed with relief the she hadn’t rejected this little scrap and let them get on with it. ‘Charlotte’ as we’ve dubbed her, is still going strong. We tried feeding her the milk a couple of times but she made it clear what she thought of that, not much. We watch in fascination as she fights through the hoard and gets the milk she wants, always first and last at the teat. She sneaks out while the others are asleep too, she’s not daft that Charlotte.
Yesterday we were out in the barn and we snuck a look under the lid at the babies as they napped. In a long line they were, top to tail and squeezed together, happily snoozing. Along the top of several of her siblings, using them as a mini porcine sun lounger, was Charlotte; basking in the heat from beneath and above she snoozed, as happy as a pig can be I think. A dozen happy pigs, plus Mama, is pretty good going by my reckoning. Makes icy winds and crazy nights seem worth it.