The History of the Berkshire Breed
by Larry McMullen of Iowa State University
Three hundred years ago – so legend has it – the Berkshire hog was discovered by Oliver Cromwell’s army, in winter quarters at Reading, the county seat of the shire of Berks in England. After the war, these veterans carried the news to the outside world of the wonderful hogs of Berks; larger than any other swine of that time and producing hams and bacon of rare quality and flavor. This is said to have been the beginning of the fame of the Redding Fair as a market place for pork products.
William Shiels, Berkshire Pig, 1832-38, bred by Mr Loud, Mackstockmill, Warwickshire. Only the white socks and tassel tail remain in today’s version of this breed. On display at National Museum of Rural Life, East Kilbride.
This original Berkshire was reddish or sandy colored hog, sometimes spotted. Later this basic stock was refined with a cross of Siamese and Chinese blood, bringing the color pattern we see today along with the quality of more efficient gains. This was the only outside blood that has gone into the Berkshire breed during the time of recorded livestock history. For 200 years the Berkshire bloodstream has been pure, according to today’s records.
The excellent carcass quality of Berkshire pigs made them an early favorite with the upper class of English farmers. For years the Royal Family kept a large Berkshire herd at Windsor Castle. A famous Berkshire pig of a century ago was named Windsor Castle, having been farrowed and raised within sight of the towers of the royal residence. This boar was imported to the U.S.A in 1841, creating a stir in the rural press, which has seldom been equaled. From these writings, it appears that he must have weighed about 1,000 pounds at maturity. His offspring were praised for their increased size, along with their ability to finish at any age.
According to the best available records, the first Berkshire pigs were brought to the U.S.A. in 1823. They were quickly absorbed into the general hog population because of the marked improvement they created when crossed with common stock. At least one of the major “American” breeds has publicly admitted its debt to Berkshire blood in establishing its foundation. This breed, the Poland China, carries identical color markings.
In 1875, a group of Berkshire breeders and importers met in Springfield, Illinois, to establish a way of keeping the Berkshire breed pure. These agricultural leaders of the day felt the Berkshire should stay pure for improvement of swine already present in the United States and not let it become only a portion of the “Common Hog” of the day. On February 25 of the same year, the American Berkshire Association was founded, becoming the first Swine Registry to be established in the world. This society drew forth an enthusiastic response from men working with the breed both in this country and in England. The first hog ever recorded was the boar, Ace of Spades, bred by Queen Victoria.
At that time most of the leading herds in the U.S.A were using some imported stock. Therefore, it was agreed that when the society was established, only hogs directly imported from established English herds, or hogs tracing directly back to such imported animals, would be accepted for registration. The breed today is descended from animals recorded at the time or from stock later imported. The most recent importations of English Berkshires were in 2000 and 2005. Two boars were imported in 2000 and three boars in 2005; they have been made available to all breeders (US, Japan and Canada) via artificial insemination.
In 1876, the first Breed Publication printed the following: “The Berkshire meat is better marbled than that of any other breed of swine. It has a greater proportion of lean freely intermixed with small, fine streaks of fat making the hams, loins, and shoulders tender, and juicy. This renders the whole carcass not only the more palatable to persons in general, but is unquestionably the healthiest food. Considering these facts, the Berkshire, above all others, should be the favorite among us. We ought to take all possible pains in breeding Berkshires in such a manner as to enhance this superior quality, not only for the home use but also for the foreign market.”
The American Berkshire Association in West Lafayette, Indiana maintains the records and registry of a very influential breed of swine in the history of the world.
The Berkshire breed paved the way for better swine production and improvement in the United States and Europe, as well. Berkshires have had great influence upon the swine industry the past 100 years, and the breed association has made people aware of the importance of purebred animals. Types have changed in the swine industry due to economic needs, and Berkshires have played some distinguishable roles in the swine industry. At the Chicago International Livestock Expositions, in all breed competition, Berkshires won champion individual carcass five years in a row and 11 out of 13 years. Berkshires won champion car lot 8 years in a row and 15 out of 18 years. These winnings have never been duplicated at any major show by any other breed.