Recruit new breeders monitor the genetic heritage of animals: there are still many challenges to ensure the sustainability of Basque pork which almost disappeared a few decades ago in favor of more productive breeds.
A group of passionate breeders has managed to preserve this rustic pork from the southwest of France, raised in the open air and honored on Wednesday at the Salon de l’Agriculture, during the General Agricultural Competition.
In a small enclosure, six gilts – females who have not yet given birth – roam quietly, without paying attention to each other, or to the visitors who observe them behind the barriers.
The judges are busy around each animal with a black head and hindquarters, to assess its color, its size or the robustness of its legs, crucial to evolving on steep or rough terrain in the Basque Country.
“The breed is still threatened, it is necessary to renew the generations of breeders, to encourage the young and the not so young to take an interest in this animal. As it is less prolific, it is necessary to find other qualities than yield”, explains to AFP Arnaud Maintenu, secretary of the sector.
People who get started “adhere to our philosophy of life”, based on outdoor breeding and on a human scale, underlines this breeder installed in Beyrie-sur-Joyeuse, in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques, who presents two animals to the competition.
There are a little more than 70 producers of this breed of pork “black pie from the Basque Country”, renowned for the quality of its meat and its high-end dried ham “kintoa”. Last summer, it obtained recognition as a European Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), guaranteeing the area and ancestral production methods.
These breeders produce 4,000 pigs per year, which represents some 6,000 hams. Figures however very modest compared to those of neighboring Spain, which produces millions of hams each year.
– Reproduction closely monitored –
The industry had to adopt draconian measures to ensure that its free pigs are not accidentally exposed to the African swine fever virus carried by wildlife. To develop, it needs in particular breeders, these breeders responsible for the reproduction of animals.
“Being a breeder is more restrictive, but at least your pig is at home from start to finish”, comments to AFP Jacques Laby, 56, while waiting for his gilts to be evaluated.
For this breeder, who works with his son, Bixente, participating in the general competition is a real pride.
After the gilts, it’s the turn of five larger sows to be judged. A little agitated when they arrive in the enclosure, some of them break up, before being separated by breeders.
Besides their physical aspect, the jury is interested in their genetic heritage.
“You have to be very careful with genetics, we have set a consanguinity rate of 14% not to be exceeded, which is still a lot”, explains AFP Miren Tristant, technician and member of the jury.
“It would take about a thousand sows, double what we have, to consider that the breed is saved,” she said. Long-term work.
“The big job of breeders is to keep the inbreeding coefficient low,” confirms Pierre Urruspil, breeder, who participates in the agricultural competition for the first time.
After working for the pig industry, this 64-year-old breeder, who takes care of around forty sows, has reoriented himself to this small sector producing PDO products and offering better “income security”.
While waiting to be able to return home, with her reward plate, her Lomendi sow, named after a Basque hill, rests. Sprawled on the podium, his long black ears covering his eyes.