The History of the Berkshire Breed
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 Reading Fair as a market place for pork products.
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 within the time of recorded livestock history. For 200 years now the Berkshire bloodstream has been pure, as far as the records are known today.
The excellent carcass quality of the Berkshire hog made him 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 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 this country in 1841, creating a stir in the rural press, which has seldom been equaled. From these writings, it appears that he must have weighed around 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 Berkshires were brought to this country in 1823.
Registry in the United States
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. The first hog ever recorded was the boar, Ace of Spades, bred by Queen Victoria.
At that time most of the leading herds in this country were using some imported stock. Therefore, it was agreed upon when the society was established, that 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 these animals recorded at the time or from stock later imported.
The home of the American Berkshire Association is West Lafayette, Indiana. Here, a bedford stone building carries the records and registry of the most influential breed of swine in the history of the world.
In 1876, in the first Breed Publication, the following was printed “The Berkshire meat is better marbled than that of any other breed of swine. That it has a greater proportion of lean freely intermixed with small, fine streaks of fat making the hams, loins, and shoulders sweet, tender, and juicy. This renders the whole carcass not only the more palatable to persons in general, but are unquestionably the most healthy food. Considering these facts, the Berkshire, above all others, should be the favorite swine among us. We ought to take all possible pains in breeding Berkshire in such a manner as to enhance this superior quality, not only for home us but also for the foreign market.”
Today when many in the pork industry have emphasized leanness while sacrificing meat quality it is important that we re-emphasize what the founders of the American Berkshire Association knew in 1875. Berkshires produce a whole carcass that is well marbled. It is consistently sweet, tender, juicy and palatable. When consumers want pork that tastes good the American Berkshire above all others is their favorite, not only in the United States but also for the foreign market.