Essential Wessex: Domestic Pig Breeds

Wessex is home to many breeds of domestic pig. Some of the most prominent are as follows.

The Berkshire Pig (illustrated) is one of the oldest breeds of domestic pig in Britain, and the first to have pedigrees recorded in herd books (a development which occurred much later than it did for other species of livestock, due to pigs being seen as a peasant's animal). It originated around Reading in the early 18th century, when native breeds were crossed with imported pigs from East Asia.

The Gloucestershire Old Spot is called "old" because it has been around since time immemorial. Its meat is geographically protected, due to traders fraudulently mislabelling the meat of other breeds as GOS meat.

The Hampshire Hog actually originated around the Scottish border. but was exported to North America from Hampshire. It is so identified with the county that its inhabitants are referred to as Hampshire Hogs.

Closely related to the Berkshire pig is the Oxford Sandy and Black. This breed was on the verge of extinction in 1985, when a Breed Society was formed. Thanks to the Society's efforts, numbers are on the increase, though it is still among the rarest of breeds. It is sometimes nicknamed the Plum Pudding, because of its distinctive colouring,

Finally, the Wessex Saddleback is now extinct in the United Kingdom, though it survives in Australia and New Zealand. It was traditionally farmed for bacon and ham,

Essential Wessex: Feral Ponies

Wessex is home to many breeds of feral pony, on Exmoor, Dartmoor, Lundy and in the New Forest.

Ponies have existed in the New Forest since the end of the last Ice Age. Currently, all New Forest ponies are owned collectively by the Foresters who have right of pasture over common land. The Court of Verderers appoints five Agisters to look after the ponies, each covering a different area of the Forest.

New Forest ponies formed the basis of the breeding stock for Lundy Ponies in the 1920s., crossed with a Welsh Mountain stallion. Exmoor or Dartmoor ponies would have been closer geographically, but the owner of the Island at the time, Martin Coles Harman, wanted a larger breed, able to cope with the relatively harsh conditions on Lundy.

Fossil remains of Exmoor ponies have been found dating back to around 50,000 BC. They are smaller than New Forest or Lundy ponies, but are agile and sturdy. They were used as pit ponies in the past.

Finally, Dartmoor ponies were also used by tin miners, and make excellent foundation stock for riding ponies. Their numbers are in steep decline, however, from around 5000 in 1900 to 800 today. The Dartmoor Pony Society and the Duchy of Cornwall are currently engaged in a breeding programme to try and reverse this trend.

Wessex Attractions: Poole Harbour

Poole Harbour is the largest natural harbour in Europe, a haven for wildlife and watercraft alike. It features a marina for yachts, an area for jet-skis and personal watercraft, and another for wind- and kite-surfing.

The area is rich in wildlife. Nearby Brownsea Island will feature in its own blog post in due course, but the harbour itself is an SSSI, a SPA and a RAMSAR site. A mile offshore is a marine conservation where over 40 species of fish (including rays and black bream), 50 species of seaweed, and 40 species of sponge and sea anemone can be found, along with lobsters, oysters and crabs.

Birdlife includes cormorants, teal, great crested grebes and spoonbills (see photo above). The latter are attracted by the warm, shallow water. Unfortunately, this shallowness makes the area uncongenial for divers. A project is currently underway to reintroduce a breeding population of ospreys, with birds translocated from Scotland.

A marina guide detailing all the harbour's facilities is available from the tourist information office.

Wessex Attractions: Avon Valley Railway

The Avon Valley Railway is a preserved 3-mile stretch of the former Midland Railway route between Gloucester and Bath Green Park. Originally running between Bitton and Oldland Common, the line was extended southward by 400 metres in 2004 to a new station, called Avon Riverside.

The railway is currently operating a weekend-only service, with occasional Wednesday running. An all-day ticket costs £8.50 for adults (£7.50 concessions) and £5.50 for children aged 5-14. Under-5s travel free. Season tickets are available.

The railway's headquarters are at Bitton Station, which can be reached by taking the number 42 bus to the terminus at nearby Cherry Gardens. The postcode, for satnav purposes, is BS30 6HD.

Wessex Attractions: East Somerset Railway

The East Somerset Railway (ESR) runs along a 212-mile stretch of the former Cheddar Valley line that originally linked Witham with Wells, where it joined the Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway. After it was axed as part of the Beeching/Marples rail cuts, the artist David Shepherd purchased Cranmore station with a view to preservation, Cranmore now serves as the headquarters of the ESR.

At the time of writing, the ESR is open, though social distancing measures are in place inside train carriages. An adult day rover ticket costs £11, with childrens, concessionary and family tickets available. Visit their website for details.

Their postcode, for satnav purposes, is BA4 4QP, and bus number 161 serves Cranmore station from Monday to Friday.