Autumn: a season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, according to Keats, at least. But the Romantic poet clearly never took a trip to the New Forest at this time of year. Fruit there is, and mists, too, often hanging low over gorse–carpeted heath, grassy bogs and woodland dells, but mellow it is not. Autumn in the UK’s smallest national park is the season of the drift — when locals on horseback round up wild ponies for health checks — of ferocious, noisy deer ruts, and of pannage: a practice dating back to the time of William the Conqueror, where domestic pigs are released to forage for wild autumn fodder.
The autumn sun is warm, almost summer-hazy as I step out of Carey’s Manor in Brockenhurst. Following a map provided by the hotel’s walking concierge (such is the way in the New Forest), within minutes of leaving this tourist honeypot town I’m alone in the forest. The floor is thick with beech and oak leaves but not a single nut, which means the pigs I’m tracking have already been through. The acorns, beech mast and chestnuts that carpet woodlands in harvest season are poisonous to both cattle, and the ponies synonymous with the New Forest. And since 1079, when William the Conqueror decreed the area a royal hunting ground, the answer to this has been pannage.
Some 140 miles of walking tracks crisscross the New Forest’s 100sq mile reach, which includes the largest remaining expanse of lowland heath in Western Europe. Seasonally explored by some 600 pigs — just a tenth of the number sent out to pannage in the 11th century — while you’re not going to trip over them, these swine are not shy. According to last month’s widely shared news report, hiker Paul Lipscombe received a bite to the knee from a group of pigs that then charged at two young women. “As absurd as it sounds,” said Lipscombe, “it appeared like they were out for trouble — like a gang of teenagers.”
When I finally encounter a herd of pigs on a country lane in the less touristy north of the park, however, it’s more like being pounced on by a pack of puppies. They come scampering out of a field, lop ears flapping, clearly convinced there are treats in my pocket. Tumbling onto the road, they slow traffic, scratch their backs against the bumper of a parked car, and snuffle-snort around my feet. I can’t resist patting one; its skin, surprisingly taught and bristly, is more like a scrubbing brush than a blubbery, cartoon-chubby porker.
Along the lane, at family-run Hockey’s Farm I learn how prized these beautifully conditioned pigs are. Acorn-fed, pannage pork fulfils the holy trinity of sustainable food production: super local, entirely seasonal, and ethically farmed. It also (stop reading now vegans and vegetarians), tastes sublime. In the farm cafe, owner Laura Burrell serves up the first of the season’s pannage pork: loin medallions with baked apples, and I can’t decide which of the two is sweeter.
A pre-booked session with Hockey’s butcher offers the chance to see a carcass sectioned, and sausages made, while still in the farm shop. I discuss the possibility of making an Iberico-like ham (also acorn-fed), with owner Jonny Burrell: “It’s something we’re considering, but ham involves a very specialist technique so we’d be looking at a partnership.” With over 40 local suppliers stocking Hockey’s farm shop, I suspect this is something the Burrells will soon manage to bring — like the fabled little piggy — to market.