Immigrant communities arriving in Ireland by boat around 6 millennia ago brought with them the most radical ecological experiment known to mankind – agriculture. The revolution consisted of cultivating cereals and husbanding cattle, sheep, goats and pigs.
Down the millennia, pigs were reared free range in Ireland. Most Irish households kept a pig right up to the start of the 20th century. To this day pig meat, (pork, ham and bacon), is the most consumed meat in Ireland. However, it is the factory farming of pigs which is now dominant.
The industry here is highly intensive with the vast majority of pigs reared on factory farms. The animals are kept inside large sheds with no access to outdoors. The crowded and barren conditions make the animals disease-prone with the result that antibiotics are widely used. This type of farming is not good for animal welfare or safety and quality of food. Most of the producers have a narrow focus on profit whilst the consumer is enticed by the prospect of cheap food.
Only a small number of pigs are kept on free-range or organic farms. These pigs have access to the outdoors and they also have a shed for warmth and to keep dry. Thankfully free-range/organic pig rearing is now experiencing a modest revival. The number of individuals applying to the Department of Agriculture for permits to keep pigs has been rising steadily from a low base ever since the economic crash of 2007.
Eva Harald is a free-range pig farmer in County Clare. She rears the animals on her farm near the village of Kilfenora http://burrenfreerangepork.com/
Eva is originally from a town called Jakobstad on the west coast of Finland. She is a member of the linguistic minority of mother tongue Swedish which account for 6% of the Finnish population.
Eva’s husband Stephen Hegarty is a part-time conservation beef farmer. The couple has a 30 acre farm and their cattle indulge in the ancient local tradition of out wintering on land they have near the great medieval icon of Leamaneh Castle.
Eva got her first pigs in 2007 and started trading as Burren Free Range Pork. The idea was to make more use of under-exploited land on the farm. Eva also knew that the pigs would act as excellent landscape managers/soil enhancers by rotivating the land. She says “the pigs are lovely animals to be working with. They’re like pets really, easy to handle and so cute”.
At the moment Eva and Stephen have 4 rare breed Saddleback sows (adult female). The saddlebacks are quite distinctive – black in colour with a white band. Their origins may be in the West Country of England. The pigs’ diet includes fruits, vegetables, grass and pig ration (daily feed portion prepared from various feeds).
The Saddleback is regarded as an excellent eating pig and is especially prized for its hams and bacons. The “banbhs” or piglets of Eva’s Saddlebacks depart for butchering when they are about 6 months old. Eva’s sausages have at least 82% pig meat content – a much larger percentage than the industry norm. Other sublime products include rashers, ribs, roasts, chops and pork belly.
Burren Free Range Pork has been awarded the much vaunted McKenna Best in Ireland Award for the last 7 years. John and Sally Mc Kenna’s Best in Ireland Awards recognise outstanding quality in Ireland’s food and hospitality. Eva’s enterprise also features in the Georgina Campbell Ireland Guide 2015-2016. Campbell’s guide is Ireland’s leading independent food and hospitality guide.
You can buy direct from Eva (and get to see the noble animals as well) by visiting the farm by appointment. Eva also sells hot dogs and frozen pork products at the Clare Garden Festival (Ennis) in April each year, the Clare Slow Food Festival (Lisdoonvarna) each May and The Burren Food Fayre (Lisdoonvarna) each October.
In May this year the Burren Food Trail was named as the 2015 Irish winner of “European Destination of Excellence – Tourism and Local Gastronomy” (EDEN) award for developing a tourism product based on the promotion of local food in a sustainable environment. The Food Trail is a listing of quality food establishments in the area. The Trail shows the visitor the path that food takes from field to plate. http://www.burren.ie/food-dining/burren-food-trail/
Eva Harald is a committed, sustainable farmer who played an important part in the Burren’s EDEN success.
POSTSCRIPT : Eva and Stephen launched an exciting agri-tourism initiative on their farm this year. The couple transformed a vintage horse truck into bespoke farm accommodation. It is called glamping which is short for “Glamorous Camping”. The glamping truck is extremely comfortable and spacious. Bookings in the high season were strong. http://burrenglamping.com/
REFERENCE : Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire is a professional chef and culinary arts lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology (D.I.T.) His outstanding essay The Pig in Irish Culture and Cuisine can be read on the Media/Culture website http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/viewArticle/296
© Text by Tony Kirby / Images by Carsten Krieger