By Misha Harding–images Ken Harding
The prospect of embarking on a pig hunt is an exciting affair for Misha Harding, who’s early exposure to Czech wild boar cooking was dark and gamey. She has refined the approach in Oz and educates us on feral pigs around the globe in the process.
The Pig’s Journey. According to fossils, wild pigs date back some 40 million years in Europe and Asia. In 1868 Charles Darwin identified two major forms of domestic pigs, a European (Sus scrofa) and an Asian form (Sus indicus).
While studies of DNA show domestication of pigs in Europe and Asia came independently, historical records also tell us Asian pigs were brought into Europe during the 18th & early 19th centuries to improve European pig breeds, with the subsequent mixing of DNA forming a broad genetic basis for today’s domestic pig.
Seafarers favoured domestic pigs as a food supply on long voyages, with Christopher Columbus taking eight pigs on his voyage to Cuba in 1493 while Hernán Cortés and Hernando de Soto brought pigs to the American mainland in the mid-16th century. Some of de Soto’s domestic pigs that ran away at the time are said to be the grand-daddies of today’s American wild hogs, also known as razorbacks.
Wild boars are not handsome, with large heads, relatively short feet, a tail that tends to be long & straight and a snout that is longer and narrower than a domestic pig. They have camo-tending fur made up of stiff bristles that become thicker in winter – often with a prominent ridge of hair following the spine. In contrast the coats of domestic pigs are quite diverse. The theory is that coat colour variation was influenced by humans as a wild pig’s survival rests on staying hidden, whereas humans prefer to find and identify their own pigs.
Populations & Migration. Excluding deserts and high mountain ranges, wild boar populations were widespread until the last few centuries, when their territory went into rapid decline due to hunting; so much so that by the 13th century wild boar was extinct in Great Britain and in Denmark the last boar was shot in the early 19th century. By 1900 wild boar had disappeared in vast tracks of Africa, Germany, Austria, Italy and by the 1930’s they were no longer found in much of Russia.
In the mid 20th century wild boars started making a comeback, though it was not until the 1970s that they re-emerged in Denmark and in Great Britain it took till the 1990’s. Interestingly both these later repopulations came after some piggie jail breakers escaped from specialist farms and wildlife parks. Since then numbers have steadily risen due to growing consumer demand for wild boar meat.
While native across vast regions of Northern and Central Europe, the Mediterranean, North Africa and Asia, wild boar were artificially introduced in the Americas & Australasia, where they rapidly became a sought after food source and an environmental threat.
Unsurprisingly big boars should be treated with great respect by large predators and man as they have been known to gore their attackers to death.
Welcome to Australia. Feral pigs in Australia are descendants of domestic stock brought by early European settlers and today cover an estimated 38 per cent of the country. Sometimes referred to as ‘Captain Cookers’ these ancestors flourished, with idyllic conditions and few predators.
Wild pigs remind me of wombats; compact and heavy for their size – an average boar weighs around 50–90 kg, with a sow as little as 44 kg. Size is influenced by environment, pigs being smaller in tropics and larger in cold climates.
Males have continuously growing tusks, protruding ominously from the mouth, their tusks measure around 6cm (or more) and sharpen as the upper and lower canine teeth grind against each other. They use them as both weapons and tools. The rear teeth are used for crushing their quarry.
Feral pigs do not naturally go out of their way to be aggressive, yet catch them by surprise and instinct kicks in and they will charge an intruder. A male dips its head, then slashes upward with his tusks. Although their hard skull can cause considerable damage, the real danger comes from those tusks, which more often than not hit a man’s legs. A female charges with her head up and mouth open, ready to bite the enemy. While her canines do not protrude they are sharp and dangerous… especially when mum is protecting her piglets!
Breeding. Wild boars are mostly solitary animals, whereas sows and piglets live in groups called sounders. When days become shorter, testosterone production in males peaks (mid-autumn) they set off in hot pursuit of some sows. Like many horny males in the wild the would-be suitor will fight rival males for the pick of the best – and most – girls and once they win their sow they take their time. Mating is enthusiastic and can last over 45 minutes.
A pregnant sow will leave the group to build a nest out of vegetation and dirt about 1–3 days prior to farrowing and will remain there with the piglets for 4–6 days before rejoining the others. Usually a litter has 4 to 6 piglets, with feral piggies enjoying a liberal minded nursery, where they suckle between other lactating sows. They are fully weaned in 3 to 4 months, yet their rooting behaviour kicks in a couple of days and within a few weeks they’re tucking into some nice meaty grubs and worms. These little guys start life with a chocolaty coat – with cream stripes that fade at 6 months – after which their colouring darkens to resemble the adults.
It’s little wonder feral pigs can rapidly become a pest, as sows have up to 10 piglets per litter and can produce two litters every 12-15 months. Studies show 100 feral breeding sows can produce anywhere from 316 to a staggering 900 piglets in 2 years, depending on their conditions and habitat. Piglets reach sexual maturity at 6 months of age. This can cause a very big problem – very quickly.
Environment. So great is the feral pig problem that in August 2004, ‘predation, habitat degradation, competition and disease transmission’ were officially listed as a key threatening process by the Australian government. As feral pigs largely stick to their home range, their numbers have been estimated to be well in the millions.
Wild pigs prefer wetlands, floodplains and watercourses; relying on daily water and dense foliage to protect them from extreme weather.
Feral pigs cause severe environmental degradation by systematically eating preferred plant species, eroding soil, fouling water, spreading weeds and plant & animal disease and eating small native animals such as frogs, reptiles, birds and freshwater crocodiles and turtle eggs. A favourite when lamb is not on the menu, is young deer.
This ‘opportunistic omnivore’ is a farmer’s nightmare; killing lambs, competing with livestock for pasture and drought feed, damaging fences and waterholes and wreaking havoc on crops. Feral pigs prefer to forage in early mornings or the late afternoon/evening with rest periods during both night and day and their acute sense of smell (unbeatable in locating truffles!) is a hazard to our native ecology as they plough up roots and tubers and threaten many native plant varieties. If that’s not bad enough, they can spread exotic diseases to humans as well as native and domestic animals.
Although recreational hunters kill approx 15-20% of feral pig population’s annually, their effectiveness is hampered by only being able to reach accessible areas. Nonetheless hunters are very helpful in addressing localised feral pig problems and have oft been a farmer’s lifeline. Many farmers are against baiting (not so much for humane reasons as the risk of their dogs being poisoned) and fences (while quite effective) are costly to erect and maintain. Unfortunately there are a handful of hunters who perpetuate the problem by introducing pigs to previously pig-free areas in order to create future sport.
Watch out, here come the Hardings
The afternoon was glorious, one of those where you know coming across anything to fill the freezer is simply a bonus. We were perched on the side of a hill glassing for goats when to our surprise we spotted a perfect eating sized pig. The few pigs I have ever seen in the past were all at some distance away and always on the flats. Shouldering my Kimber 243 we set off to see if we could get close enough to take the shot. Fortunately the wind was in our favour and we had a number of trees between us and the pigs that would help obscure our approach. Crouching down we slowly picked our way along until we reached an old tree that had a trunk wide enough to conceal us both. Ken turned to be and mouthed “ready?” My heart was in my mouth so the best I could do was nod in reply. This is the part I take more seriously and reverently than almost anything else I do in life and I have never taken a shot unless I am confident I will hit my target without wounding it.
Slowly I unfolded my bipod and crawled out from behind our hiding spot just enough to line the pig up in the crosshairs of my Leica riflescope. As I sought out the exact spot I wanted (behind its shoulder) I saw the pig’s coat was short with bristles that looked incredibly wiry. Easing any tension out of my body I took a deep breath and squeezed the trigger. The pig was down and Ken was on the move toward it with me a few paces behind. While he was pulling out what he needed to dress the pig out from the backpack, I said my little Apache style prayer in my head – thanking it for the food is was providing the family. For me it’s never an easy thing to do, but we are a meat eating family and I am determined to be organic, humane and know exactly what we are eating… knowing the animal has not suffered as they do before they arrive nicely packaged on a supermarket tray.
Ken pulled the skin around the hocks (so he could cleanly get the gambles through the meat) and hung the pig from a tree. This allowed him to work with ease, while ensuring the meat was not contaminated by grass or dirt. I watched in fascination as – once hoisted up – he skinning it from its back legs down, unpeeling the skin as one would a banana. Being a young animal allowed him to punch the skin off using a combination of his hand and the butt of the knife handle, progressively working down toward the neck area. Continually punching the skin away meant there was no risk of nicking it with the knife, thus keeping it nice and tidy.
When he reached the head he cut through the pig’s cervical vertebrae and let the entire coat drop to the ground. With the skin removed, out came the gut hook and he carefully cut all the way to the diaphragm, whereupon he reverted to the normal blade to cut from the sternum down to the neck. As I watched I saw this was as a simple and yet effective way of opening the abdominal cavity without risk of punching or cutting the intestines and making an almighty mess. Finally, in one movement, he stripped out all the internal organs – a delish treat for that nights scavenging foxes!
In Ken’s kit of magic tricks he had a one hand battery operated AEG reciprocating saw, with a blade designed for cutting through bone. If you’re an unseasoned gringo such as myself, the next step is to take your knife and run it along the edge of the vertebrae along the full length of the carcass down to its neck. This forms a guide along which your saw blade will then follow.
I must say, the reciprocating saw is an awesome tool; it takes up little room, is lightweight and saves a heck of a lot of time and muscle power cutting up the animal.
Once my piggie was cut in half, Ken broke down each side into four sections; shoulder, thoracic (or rib section), loin and back leg.
One thing to keep in mind is that you need to be careful when eating wild pig. As I mentioned earlier they can be the carriers of parasites and disease. Luckily Ken was a meat inspector in his previous life, so he always checks the lymph glands and other key areas for any sign of disease. A great rule of thumb – if in doubt, leave it!
As with any wild game it is important to cook the meat properly ie hot enough and long enough, so you stay on the safe side. And yes, Mr Piggie was toe-curlingly deeeelish (just check out my recipe!)
Misha’s Gourmet Wild Pork Tacos – Serves 4
500g Wild Pork, minced
1 large organic onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 heaped tbsp organic tomato paste
1/2 small organic corn cob, kernelled (or 1/2 of tin)
1/2 can organic diced tomatoes
2 small or 1 large organic carrot, finely chopped
2 tsp cumin powder
2 tsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
1/2 tsp ginger powder
1 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
12 Taco Shells, flat based
Mixed Salad Greens
1 large Ripe Avocado
Grated Tasty Cheese
Sour Cream (optional)
Sauté onion and garlic until soft then add wild pork mince. Once brown add corn, carrot, tinned tomato, tomato paste, spices and cook on medium heat. Season to taste.
While the meat is cooking slice the tomato & avocado then grate the cheese, placing each in a bowl – with an extra bowl of sour cream. Pop these on the centre of the table with a bowl of your pork mince, so everyone can make their own.
This is so easy to prepare and the kids will love it. It’s also a great way to use every little bit of your fabulous wild pork meat. I love sourcing organic, it not only tastes great but it’s the perfect match for your naturally free range pork! Leftover meat can be frozen and used in a lunchtime wrap or fajita.