Some piggy mothers are just clumsy. I see them kick and tread and lay on their young, not out of spite, but just because they’re in the way, as though they haven’t quite tuned into their babies. All the outer signs of mothering are there, it’s the other ones that are missing, the ones that are more difficult to describe but can pretty much all be filled under the heading, ‘bonding’. They love them, but they don’t bond with them.
Luckily Mother Nature has done a bit of forward planning in this department and built piglets like Tonka Toys. Once the babies are a few days old, they’re solid little bruisers and it’s rare to have problems, which probably means when you do get a problem it’s much more of a shock.
I found a piglet lying dead in the straw.
Mother and siblings were at the other side of the pen munching the dinner I’d just tossed in for them when I noticed the little black body. He was at the bottom of a furrow shaped like mum and the assumption was he hadn’t got out of the way quick enough when she’d lain down.
Whenever anything dies it’s always the same sudden feeling and I hate it; it’s like my entire insides are yanked out leaving a vast Tardis-like expanse that’s icy cold. It’s the worst feeling.
I climbed over the gate. There was little point in rushing. I could see his head squashed and his tongue sticking out between tiny pin teeth. I picked him up. He was warm, but then he would have been with a 40 stone mum lying on top of him.
I climbed back out and sank down next to a straw bale, cuddling him to my chest and telling him I was sorry. I told him I wished I could have been there to help him, and I stroked him and held him and stroked him some more, and brushed his little face with my finger and touched his little tongue, and as I did he opened his eyes and looked at me.
Okay, first reaction was to throw him on the floor, which was stupid but it was like having a ghost wink at you. When I recovered I said, “Blyme boy, are you still alive?” which was probably just as idiotic.
I kept cuddling him trying not to laugh so he wouldn’t bounce up and down on my chest. Bit by bit I could feel him recovering, and marvelled at how tough these little guys really are. I thought back to the mum shaped dent in the straw and figured the way the straw had been compacted she must have been there for at least half an hour.
He could only have been minutes away from dying, possibly less. For me to come along right at that moment, with the feed so that mum got up, was so lucky.
There were no broken bones, but the obvious worry was brain damage from oxygen starvation.
I tried to think of what I should be looking for, but without any understanding or training I had no idea, so I just tried to look for anything unusual. First I grabbed a can of antiseptic purple spray from the side and put a line down his back so I could pick him out, then put him on the floor.
Mum was back lying on her side with all her piglets plugged in. He marched over and hooked straight onto a teat. He seemed fine.
Mum groaned and kicked her feet out, but none of them detached. Then, little by little, the babies began drifting off to sleep still plugged in. The last one to drop off was the one with the line down his back, without which I’d never have been able to pick him out.
Published in The North Devon Devon Journal in my weekly column.