Running Loose and Pigging Out for Ecology’s Sake | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 26.07.2002
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Running Loose and Pigging Out for Ecology’s Sake

A team of ecologists and vets in Germany are working on making the German grazing pig a part of pastoral landscape again. They believe that the pigs benefit the ecology with their unique foraging habits.


Grazing pigs are poised for a comeback in the German countryside

A trip to the German countryside today will rarely offer sight of fat pigs running freely on fields or scrounging for food. They are more likely to be cooped up in pigsties and stalls.

Yet until the beginning of the last century, it was common practice on German farms to let domestic pigs run loose outdoors and have them guarded by herdsmen.

Farmers considered it important to keep pigs as grazing livestock. They believed their unique plowing of soil with their snouts in search of sub-surface food was useful in soil conservation and preservation of endangered species of flora and fauna.

Reviving the medieval German grazing pig

In the early 1980s, zoologists in Berlin came across a reference to the German grazing pigs or "Weideschweine" in medieval literature. A further intensive search for texts on farming and agriculture dating from that time threw up information on how the pig looked and was bred.

For farmers it was a dream animal to have – tough, healthy and capable of surviving for long stretches of time with no shelter at all.

In recent times there has been renewed interest in the grazing pig in Germany as ecological and cost- and conservation-friendly farming practices gather momentum.

A team of vets, ecologists and agrarian scientists in Marburg and Höxter is now working on a joint project funded by the Federal Ministry of Education, Science, Research and Technology to find out more about the exact impact of the pig on the environment.

Breeding pigs on cleared areas of land

The project also comes at a time when large marginal agricultural areas in Europe with poor production potential are affected by a decline of continuous land-use.

Burkhard Beinlich, the project manager says, "We have to assume that many agricultural areas will simply stop being used here in central Europe in the near future because they just won’t be worth the investment anymore. A use will have to be found for the many fields that open up. One use would be to reforest them, but you can only do that to a small percentage of the newly opened land. That means we have to find new ways of keeping some of the areas cleared".

Cleared areas are ecologically important because they provide space for a wider variety of vegetation than forested areas. The idea is now to vegetate the cleared areas and breed pigs on them.

Pigging around to help the ecosystem

For that purpose the researchers study the contribution that grazing pigs make to a more diverse ecosystem, and which plants and animals profit through their presence.

A separately conducted two year study has already shown that fields where grazing pigs were left largely to their own, an average of fifty more species of plant were found, than in those fields which were simply left fallow. Researchers have also discovered that the new plants attract new species of insects too.

As the pigs burrow into the earth with their snouts in their hunt for food, they constantly turn the soil, thus making it easier for other small animals and bugs– usually smothered by pesticides and artificial fertilisers – that are attracted to sunshine and warmth to make their way to the surface easily.

Researchers also study the social, resting and reproductive behaviour of the porkers to learn more about their habits.

"We look at how the animals use the fields that we let them range, where they graze, where they root, where they defecate. This information is important so that we can later optimise field management", says Beinlich.

Free or locked up in a stall?

The results of the study are intended to help farmers who want to raise animals in this ecological manner compete with intensive, factory-style animal husbandry.

It has been proven that German grazing pigs grow up much slower than their counterparts cooped up in stalls throughout the country, which means that their meat is firmer and tastier.

Yet one of the trickiest aspects of returning pigs to a foraging lifestyle remains their health. The argument goes that if the porkers are kept in stalls, it is easier for farmers to monitor what they eat.

Though on the other hand, the recent hormone-tainted pig feed scandal in Europe may show otherwise.

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