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Pannage pork could be in short supply this year due to a lack of acorns on the New Forest

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PANNAGE pork could be in short supply this season due to soaring demand and a poor year for acorns leading to fewer pigs being turned out onto the Forest.

Requests for the meat of New Forest-reared, acorn-fed pigs have been coming in thick and fast, say local butchers and farm shops, with consumers and London restaurants keen to get their hands on the speciality.

The national park is in the midst of the pannage season, an ancient practice which is virtually extinct outside the area.

Wendy Maughan's pigs have been returning home to Manor Farm, near Cadnam, each night
Wendy Maughan's pigs have been returning home to Manor Farm, near Cadnam, each night

In previous years, up to 600 domestic pigs are turned out to hoover up the acorns – which are poisonous to the ponies and cattle – for a 60-day period during the autumn. But the verderers say just 140 have been released this year.

These slower growing animals produce quality pork with a superior nutty flavour and unique texture. Demand is higher than ever this year following the appearance of pannage pigs in the BBC2 series Remarkable Places to Eat, with Fred Sirieix.

But Cadnam commoning farmer Andrew Parry-Norton, of the Commoner’s Larder, has warned that without enough acorns to go around, pannage pork may be harder to come by this year and next.

“I’ve turned out half a dozen pigs this year but ordinarily I would release three times that many,” he explained.

“Usually my pigs would disappear off into the woods and I wouldn’t see them for weeks. But this year they’ve been hanging around and I’ve had to top their food up to keep the condition on them.

“I always have a lot of enquiries about pannage pork and my order book for this year is nearly full – it’s so popular and if we could produce more we would.

“But we can’t put our animals out if there’s no food for them, so the pork may be in short supply this year.”

Commoner and farmer Wendy Maughan, of Manor Farm near Cadnam, supplies pannage pork to Hockeys Farm Shop in Gorley. She said her pigs have been returning home hungry each evening.

“This year has been markedly different to previous years as normally the pigs wander far and wide during the pannage season,” she told the A&T. “Last year they travelled as far as Linwood from Brook and stayed away for weeks at a time.

“This year there’s not been a night when the pigs haven’t returned home at night for their supper, bed and breakfast, and this is purely down to the much reduced supply of acorns.

“They do, however, seem to be making the most of the beechmast available and at least the ponies aren’t being killed by the acorns this year.”

Wendy’s breeding programme is put together well in advance of a pannage season so her quantities of meat – some of which will be Forest-run as opposed to pannage – will remain the same this year.

“However, farmers who would normally buy in weaners to run during pannage may well have not bought in this year due to the lack of acorns,” she said.

Alister Cutts, of Folds Farm in Fordingbridge, has turned 100 of his 200 pigs out this year
Alister Cutts, of Folds Farm in Fordingbridge, has turned 100 of his 200 pigs out this year

Jonny Burrell, of Hockey’s Farm, decided against putting his pigs out this year, but has received around 50 calls from consumers enquiring about pannage pork.

However, the commoners that supply him with pannage pork, including Wendy and Alister Cutts from Folds Farm in Fordingbridge, have turned animals out. In fact, 100 of the pigs out on the Forest belong to Alister.

“We are not expecting a great shortage but because of Fred’s TV programme demand is going to be massive and availability will be low,” he said.

“But next year people will understand that this meat is rather special and there is a limited supply – that’s nature and you have to roll with it.”

Autumn 2020 in the New Forest was a bumper year for acorns – known as a mast year – and Forestry England said not as many have been produced this time because the oak trees used up a lot of their energy.

“Part of the fascination of experiencing a mast year is that we don’t completely understand the complex blend of factors that give rise to them and allow plants to coordinate the production of so much fruit and seed,” said an FE spokesperson.

“We had a very dry spring and hot summer in 2020 so the oak trees could have reacted to this by producing extra seeds that autumn. After that excessive year they may have used up a lot of their energy, which means they haven’t produced so many acorns this autumn.”

This year pannage will end on 14th November. It is a 1,000-year-old tradition that was common practice across the country in days gone by, and it is believed that in the 19th century as many as 6,000 pigs were let out.

Pigs are not usually allowed to roam the Forest freely, but this medieval form of forest management is useful for clearing away acorns and nuts that litter the ground. In 2013 a bumper acorn crop killed 90 New Forest animals.

Commoners pay a fee for each pig, which must be marked with an ear tag and have a ring through its nose to limit damage to the forest floor by rooting. Unmarked animals running on the Forest are in breach of verderers’ bylaws and their owners could be fined up to £200.

Farms producing pannage pork include Storm’s Farm in Cadnam, Folds Farm in Fordingbridge, Manor Farm near Cadnam, Pilmore Heath Farm in Emery Down, and PR Burgess and Sons in Bramshaw.

They supply various butchers, farm shops and restaurants, including Sway Butchers, Fordingbridge Farm Shop, Shappen Stores in Burley, Hockeys Farm Shop in Gorley, and The Pig Hotel in Brockenhurst.

Main image: Vicky Ling

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