Twenty-five years ago, there was relatively little concern as to where food came from and how the animals that produced it were reared. But one man, Wiltshire farmer Cameron Naughton, was determined from the outset to rear his pigs differently.
He was one of the first farmers in the country to sign up to RSPCA Assured - the RSPCA’s higher welfare farm assurance and food labelling scheme. This year, RSPCA Assured is celebrating its 25th Anniversary – and the hard work and dedication of farmers, like Cameron, who have been long term members.
Raised on a farm with a father who helped pioneer outdoor pig breeding in the 1950s, Cameron never strayed far from his pig farming roots.
Taking over the family farm business in 2002, at the picturesque West End Farm near Devizes in Wiltshire, Cameron set about looking for customers who understood what goes into looking after pigs to higher welfare standards - and who would be prepared to pay the extra for what Cameron believes is a much higher quality product.
“The fact that being a higher welfare pig farmer didn’t attract any significant premium back in the late 1980s was frustrating, and it was a real challenge to make ends meet. But more recently, we have seen a real shift in thinking. It’s still not easy to find customers who get what we do here and who are prepared to pay a premium – but we are making progress.
Customers who have really bought into our methods include Walter Rose and Son in Devizes, Creed Food Service in Gloucester, and Dorset based DB Foods. They have all helped massively to keep our farm viable. We have also made progress with a couple of supermarkets who are gradually waking up to the improved quality of higher welfare pork.”
Cameron’s 550 breeding sows produce thousands of piglets during a typical 21-week cycle mostly outdoors in the rolling Wiltshire hills.
A recent success story for Cameron was in persuading a local abattoir (just six miles from his farm) to join RSPCA Assured.
“My pigs now only have to travel a very short distance. This is really important to me because long journeys can be stressful. I know my animals enjoy the best life possible on my farm, but their welfare needs don’t stop when they leave to be transported to the abattoir.”
Cameron believes that higher welfare standards don’t just mean happier pigs but also better quality meat. He firmly believes that the breed is important too.
“We rear Hampshires here. It’s a breed that produces good fat marbling in the meat which melts during the cooking process, keeping it moist and imparting flavour. You don’t get flavourful, tender pork without fat.
We make a real effort here to host visits for our customers and their customers. This often includes chefs and restaurateurs. It’s really important that they see our method of farming pigs in practice so they can appreciate the huge effort we put into it.”
Cameron also sees educating the consumers of tomorrow as really important too.
“We’ve also been hosting GCSE food technology students, including girls from Malvern College. They are the customers of the future, so getting them to understand and appreciate the benefits of farming animals well is essential.”
For the last five years, these visitors have also seen a dynamic change in the way Cameron manages the pig paddocks.
“We rotate the paddocks more frequently than we used to and we’re planting pollen nectar mixes. This has lead to an explosion of wildlife with deer, hares, buzzards and kites now regular visitors – along with a carpet of wildflowers attracting masses of bees.
After all these years, I still get so much pleasure from farming my animals well. Seeing them able to fully exhibit their natural behaviours - rooting in grass and straw and wallowing in big, natural pools of water – is so satisfying. They are definitely ‘pigs in clover! And with our investment in wildflower planting and more frequent paddock rotation, the environment for all of us is so much better too.”
As for the future, Cameron admits that it will never be easy:
“I know it’s difficult for many people to find the extra money for our higher welfare, RSPCA Assured pork. So I believe the solution is to eat less meat – but when we do, make sure it is of the best quality, farmed to the highest possible welfare standards, in a sustainable environment”.