Pig Consciousness Inka Schube in conversation with Kathrin Ollendorf and Holger Linde
Inka Schube: Where did the idea come from? How did it all start? Kathrin Ollendorf and Holger Linde: Holger had the idea of keeping pigs outdoors for many years and wanted to do it with his father. When the two of us were looking for a farm for such a project and found the farm with woodland and fields, it was obvious to us that the pigs should also be allowed into the woods, because that is where they belong.
What exactly is an “Arche” farm and what makes it different? The Gesellschaft zur Erhaltung alter und gefährdeter Haustierrassen (GEH) e.V., an association for the preservation of old and endangered farm animals, certifies farms as “Arche” farms if they keep and farm at least one old breed and contribute to preserving the breed (which also means listing the animals of the breed in the herd book).
What in your view were the most important, fundamental steps? This first involved finding the right location, then approaching the relevant authorities with a detailed project plan and finding out about the prospects of their approval and their possible concerns. With this knowledge in mind, we then wrote the application for the establishment of a farm, for permission to keep pigs outdoors and special permission for woodland grazing in the autumn. This was followed a few years later by the application for recognition as an irreplaceable livestock genetic resource.
On the practical side, the most important steps were the erection of the burrow-proof outer fence and the choice of a docile and robust breed of pig. And, of course, buying the first little Angeln Saddleback breeding sows.
Why did you choose this specific breed of pig? Angeln Saddelbacks are hardy, can cope with different weather conditions, digest green fodder well and are responsive to humans – these characteristics make them ideal for free-range husbandry. Unfortunately, this breed is threatened with extinction. By breeding and marketing them, we are adding a piece to the jigsaw to preserve the breed’s gene pool.
What organisational and/or financial assistance do you get? Family and friends have supported us in word and deed – a big thank-you to them! The project is privately financed. Apart from that, there hasn’t been any other financial support – EU subsidies would have only limited us in what we do. Other funding programmes were always out of the question for a variety of reasons, because there was always some requirement that we did not meet.
The various authorities and we ourselves were willing to compromise in order to make this form of pig farming possible.
The prerequisite for our ongoing business is our customers, who we hope will continue to pay the high prices for the pigs and their products.
What do you see as the benefits of this kind of farming? The most important thing is that this is good for the pigs. With us, they have the opportunity to be themselves and develop their personalities. Working with them and always in the fresh air is fun. The products are delicious. With little space and few animals, we employ a relatively large workforce.
The arable land is surrounded by a hedge and is cultivated on a very small scale with various fodder and wild plants. At times, parts of the land lie fallow, and there is always a water supply somewhere – in this way we have created a diverse, structurally rich refuge for a wide variety of plants, insects, lizards, grass snakes and birds. Sand wasps benefit from the soil moved by the pigs. Beetle larvae develop in the dung heaps. Birds of prey hunt the mice that the grazing pigs flush out. Nature has integrated the pigs into the land wonderfully well.
Where do you see the biggest risks and dangers for your type of farming? The greatest danger is rapid climate change. At our location, for example, there has been a drought lasting for years, and for the pigs it is the heat stress in summer. Under these conditions, we can no longer reliably grow sufficient green fodder.
The second really big danger is the introduction or outbreak of livestock diseases.
At the moment, we are worried that, under the current conditions, people might end up saving on food again.
Another risk that can never be ruled out is restrictions by the authorities on keeping pigs outdoors. If the requirements are tightened, our kind of farming soon becomes impossible.
Today, would you recommend anyone to follow your example? Definitely. For the pigs’ sake, but also for the sake of farmers and customers. We all know each other and are content.
Above all, we would like to encourage all the responsible authorities, wherever they are, to approve such projects. We experience a lot of positive support from those around us, as people want the pigs to do really well. We see ourselves as an example to other farmers of how they can change.
What do you believe has to happen for a regenerative transformation of agriculture? We would like to see a reduction in general land subsidies. If there should be subsidies at all, then for proven humus formation (carbon fixation) or for labour, or for time- limited financial support for the development of new lines of business – for agroforestry systems, for example. But all these are only rough suggestions. In addition, it would make sense to only allow land-based livestock farming.
Do pigs have feelings? If so, how can you tell? They definitely show their feelings.
Not to be overlooked are their optimism and impatience.
There is a strong sense of who belongs to the group and who does not – pigs are xenophobic. Pigs immediately sense what the others are doing and how the mood is. This is clearly visible, for example, when they relax (dozing and sleeping together), when they are startled (fleeing together), when they are afraid (this has a contagious effect), when they are hungry (first wailing to a crescendo, and then eating together) and when they romp about exuberantly (turning and leaping).
Also obvious are certain states of emotion such as joy (e.g. noisy welcoming grunting, laughing, turning their tails propeller-like), squealing with delight when they have their backs rubbed, but also shyness or insecurity and caution in unfamiliar situations – despite their curiosity.
Most pigs have distinct character traits. Some, for example, always remain guarded, others are by nature constantly demanding, sometimes extremely affectionate, sometimes extremely friendly almost to the point of politeness (for example, when they turn away from their food to give us first a “thank-you” nudge), some are genuinely creative (draping branches, stones and pieces of straw in special positions every day), and some stand out because of their special intelligence.
There are friendships between them, regardless of the position in the pecking order, or with other animals, such as dogs or humans.
Pigs can be very jealous and become grumpy for this reason.
They are so greedy at the feeding trough that they forget respect for others. Drinking water together side-by-side, on the other hand, is fine.
How exactly can you tell that pigs are intelligent? Probably the most remarkable example was pigs that closely observed several times how we open and close the gates of the electric fences. What they noticed is that we touch the fence gate handles without getting an electric shock. Then one day, very cautiously and boldly, they tested their assumption by slowly approaching the handle with their wide-open mouths, grasping the isolated part and taking a bite. All it would have taken was a minor extra movement and the gate would have been open. Since then, we always twist the hook of the handle once around the wire so that the gate is closed pig-proof.
Intelligence is also when a pig makes a discovery, such as how to knock down the posts of the electric fence or otherwise get over the fence, and the others in the group copy this behaviour in an instant. In such situations, we humans have to react and reinforce the fence incredibly quickly.
Or one of the pigs smells tasty beetle larvae under a big pile of brushwood or under a thick tree trunk. No problem. The family is called in and, in teamwork, the obstacle is rolled away.
One brilliant achievement we have observed is piglet rearing, such as the sows’ various methods of avoiding kicking or crushing small piglets. They only need enough space and sufficient straw, and they come up with a new method. We also observe how the sows consciously introduce us to their piglets when they are about a week old. Or, the other way round, the piglets are gathered in a circle and the sow shows them how to noisily and joyfully greet us, and they run up to us grunting, giving us a nudge with their snouts and letting us stroke them. The sow shows them how to do it, and all the piglets immediately follow her example. From the mother sows the little ones learn not to be afraid of us humans.
In view of this variety of sensitivities, where does pig consciousness start? Perhaps at the moment when they actively begin to discover the world with their characteristically keen curiosity as piglets, i.e. at the latest when they chew their first straw on their second day of life and proudly pose with it in front of mum’s big snout.
Otherwise, consciousness is a complex subject that we can only approach if we take a step back ourselves and are careful not to read too much into a situation.
We often observe pigs engaged in apparently purposeful actions that seem nonsensical to us humans. In the end, however, they often make sense. For example, when the interior of several huts is decorated around the edges with a neat thick ring of brushwood – no, obviously not as padding for a sleeping place, for that kind of thing looks different. There are definitely pigs that have an aesthetic sensibility. Why else do some of them watch the setting sun while relaxing on a summer evening?
Obviously, many pigs have a conception of themselves and their situation and also reflect on it. They are always willing to be lured somewhere with an apple – except when they’re led away to be slaughtered, which they accept submissively and in most cases despondently. This is when they usually turn their noses up at apples.
We once had a pig that, at the onset of rain, first took a long look at the darkness and size of the rain clouds approaching in the west before retreating to the shelter of its hut.
Do you yourselves eat the meat from your pigs? Of course! We ONLY eat meat from our pigs – or if there is beef or poultry from farmers where we know how the animals are kept. Eating someone else’s pigs is no longer an option.
Holger’s point of view is that we basically shouldn’t kill pigs because they are self-aware. He eats them anyway because we humans are also meat eaters, and also out of respect for the animals – if we have the pigs killed, then they should also be eaten. But the whole issue is a process and he hasn’t come to his final conclusion yet.
I myself feel a great sense of gratitude when I say goodbye to the animals and later eat their meat – the realisation that we are all part of the great cycle of nature. We are confronted with the intensity of life and the irrevocability of death every time. For us as mammals, food intake is inevitably linked to the death of other living organisms, even when we eat plants.
In addition, there is the very practical matter of dedicating my current life entirely to the project of giving the pigs a really good life with us. This takes a lot of work and physical effort at all times of the year. And so the occasional lard sandwich on the move or, as a rare highlight, a braised heart – the strength and satisfaction after a quality meal literally gives me new energy for the following hours of work outside, for the living pigs. Is the animals’ cheerful vitality transferred to us through the food we eat? A matter for speculation. For me personally, this thought completes the circle.
Thank you very much! See you at the exhibition at the latest!
Born in 1959, Dannenberg, DE; lives near Dannenberg
• Worked from childhood on his parents‘ farm that kept pigs, later continuing the farm as a side-line • Independently of the conventional career path (studying agriculture, commercial training in the cooperative system), intense spiritual preoccupation with nature • 2012 Initiator of the Hutewaldhof project with outdoor pig farming.
Born in 1976, Magdeburg; lives near Dannenberg
• 1995/96 Organic dairy farming at Landhof Lindenberg (Altmark), DE • 1996–2001 Studied agricultural ecology at the University of Rostock, DE • 2002–2004 Trainee consultant for organic farming at Gäa Sachsen e. V. • From 2003 Management of software translations and users’ manuals at Ollendorf Mess-Systeme • 2005–2012 Organic market gardening at Landhof Lindenberg (Altmark) • 2012 Founding of the Hutewaldhof with outdoor pig farming.
Born in 1961, Burg near Magdeburg; lives in Berlin and Hannover
• 1981–1987 Studied art history, classical archaeology and aesthetics at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin • Since 2001 Curator for photography and media art, Sprengel Museum Hannover
P Christiane Möbus. Seitwärts über den Nordpol, Cologne, 2022 (author) • Anne Schönharting, Habitat: Berlin-Charlottenburg, Stuttgart, DE, 2022 (author) • Umbo. Fotograf; Umbo. Photographer, Cologne, 2019 (author, editor) • Werkstatt für Photographie 1976–1986, Cologne, 2016 (author, co-editor) • Boris Mikhailov. Die Bücher / The Books. Cologne, 2013 (author, editor)