Using Kunekune Pigs in Land Management

Editor’s Note: This appeared in the Whanganui Chronicle on the 13th of January, 2020.

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“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

I wrote about George Orwell’s recognizable Animal Farm quote six months ago in a Conservation Comment focusing on my observations of the gradual erosion of the ‘social contract’ as more and more people seem to take an attitude of “those rules don’t apply to me.” Parking on the verge during school pick-up appears to be a common expression of this form of self-applied superiority, and the bigger one’s ute the more likely we are to find it’s driver applying this form of DIY VIP parking.

But this month I mean it literally – some animals are more equal than others. In the eyes of the law certain animals are provided many rights and protections while others provided few.

Fair enough – after all some animals are critically endangered and others are considered pests. We spend millions trying to save some from extinction and millions trying to eradicate others.

Among livestock, the rules are generally the same but with notable exceptions. Take the WDC Keeping of Animals, Poultry and Bees Bylaw 2015. The bylaw takes particular exception of pigs, requiring they don’t come “Within 50 metres of an adjoining Premises boundary in all areas within the District.”

Pigs! Why is it always pigs? Pigs are smart and clean animals, yet we always hear, “This place is a pig sty!” Barack Obama famously said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig,” which Republicans claimed was directed at then vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

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I don’t know the origin of the bylaw but assume it dates to a time of poor animal management and/or unregulated hog farms. Times change, and like many outdated policies we encounter a review is welcome. The WDC Bylaw is up for review, which provides an opportunity to consider a pig ‘of a different colour’.

Taking a fresh perspective on land and management it’s easy to see that one porker rises above the rest. Yes, there actually is a pig “more equal than others”, with a name so nice you have to say it twice.

According to The New Zealand Kunekune Association, “The name Kunekune means ‘fat and round’ in Maori. The Kunekune is a unique New Zealand breed of pig. The general consensus is that the Kunekune were probably brought to New Zealand in the 1800’s by whalers operating in New Zealand waters, and were traded with the Maoris. In the late 1970’s the breed was ‘rediscovered’ and at that time it was estimated that there were only about 50 purebred Kunekunes left in New Zealand. From purebred base stock of only 6 sows and 3 boars in 1978, the Kunekune now numbers in the thousands. It is due to the enthusiasm and dedication of people… that the breed was saved from extinction.”

While it’s important to preserve rare breeds for their genetic diversity, the kunekune can also play an important role in holistic land management, regenerative agriculture, bush restoration and even combatting climate change. Yes, you read that correctly.

I first read about the use of kunekunes as a management tool at Yealands Winery about six years ago. We first employed them on our farm four years ago.

Their unique value in land management is that, unlike sheep, cows and goats, they eat grass but not trees, shrubs, vines or flax. As with Yealands, we employ kunekunes primarily as ‘workers’, although we also eat them. As part of our holistic approach to regenerative agriculture we have engaged them to manage grass and weeds in our mixed fruit orchard; around olive trees on a hillside; in an avocado orchard; and around native plantings used for stream corridor restoration.

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During the last five years we’ve planted 3,000 trees on our permaculture farm as we strive to grow more food on the land while simultaneously sequestering more carbon, reducing more erosion, and virtually eliminating Nitrogen pollution into Purua Stream. This type of win-win-win situation is known broadly as ‘ecological design’ where the aim is to work with nature instead of working against it.

The results on our farm have been profound in just five years, and we certainly advocate the use of holistic design that incorporates animals alongside perennial plantings to provide the opportunities for the land to ‘punch above its weight.’

Where kunekunes may be of most use in our District, however, is on the smaller lifestyle blocks where residents may be planting natives and/or fruit trees. Weeding is important in both cases and engaging these friendly grazers could help avoid the use of chemical weed killers, time-consuming hand-weeding, or expensive mulching. But, as you can imagine, on a one-hectare lifestyle block there is not much land that is more than 50 metres from any boundary, which essentially outlaws the use of this important management tool for growing more trees on these properties, which would help the District address climate change on many levels.

In my experience with kunekunes, when managed well they do not create mud wallows, attract flies, or make much noise, while producing less odour than some sheep and far less than a male goat.

A review of the bylaw is not only an opportunity to reconsider this unique breed and what it can provide us beyond simply meat, but also to think more holistically about the interface between plants, animals and legislation to make sure they are working with each other instead of against each other.

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Nelson Lebo manages Kaitiaki Farm in Okoia, where a Master Class on Holistic Land Management will be held 23rd April. theecoschool@gmail.com

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