Story: Pigs and the pork industry

Page 1. Early farming and feral breeds

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Early pig farming

Kunekune and Captain Cookers were the first pigs to be introduced to New Zealand. Captain Cookers were domesticated and bartered by Māori, and there was also a large wild population. Pigs were greatly valued by Māori, who helped their spread by making gifts of them to other Māori. They were kept in households to use up scraps of food, and this diet was supplemented with grain. The pigs were eventually killed for meat.

Polynesian pigs

A 2007 study analysed DNA from ancient pig remains and concluded that Polynesians and pigs did not follow the same path to the Pacific. It is traditionally believed that Polynesians and their pigs originated in Taiwan, but the study suggests that the pig came from Vietnam, and may have been collected by people migrating down through the Philippines to New Guinea and then to the Pacific.

Feral breeds

Feral pigs are those that are no longer farmed and have gone wild.

Captain Cookers

It is thought that Captain Cookers were introduced by James Cook on his first voyage to New Zealand, in 1769. Originating from the old English breeds of Tamworth, Berkshire and Large Black, Captain Cookers are the most prolific wild pigs in New Zealand.

Captain Cookers are bigger than kunekune, and similar to the wild pigs of Europe. They thrived in the New Zealand bush, their numbers increasing rapidly between 1840 and 1880, but dwindling once food became more scarce. Captain Cookers damaged pastures and crops, killed lambs, and destroyed the habitats of native species such as kākāpō (flightless parrots) and land snails. Thousands of these pigs were killed in the 1880s by hunters and farmers. Numbers rose again during both world wars, when there was a shortage of hunters, ammunition, and petrol for transport. However, they have decreased since, as a result of bounty schemes, forest clearance and hunting. Since the late 1950s, Captain Cookers have steadily declined nationwide – hunting them has remained popular.

Kunekune pigs

There is debate over the origin of the kunekune pig. Kune in Māori means ‘fat and round’, and these pigs are short-legged and sturdy, with a blunt, turned-up snout and two tassels hanging from the lower jaw. The only other pigs with such tassels are Polish breeds, and kunekune may have come to New Zealand with American sealers as the breed known as Poland China – a combination of Polish and Chinese pigs. There are no kunekune fossils dating from before the late 1700s, so they were probably introduced by Europeans rather than by early Polynesian settlers. The Polynesian ancestors of Māori brought pigs in their canoes, but it appears that none survived.

Kunekune are friendly, they learn quickly, will eat anything, and come in a range of colours, including black, tortoiseshell, ginger and smoky blue. They are becoming popular around the world as pets.

Year of the pig

The Chinese year of the pig happens every 12 years. To celebrate it in 2007, NZ Post issued a stamp series showing three early pig breeds: the kunekune, the Arapawa and the Auckland Island pig, introduced in 1807 to feed whalers and shipwrecked sailors.

Arapawa pigs

The true origin of the feral pigs of Arapawa Island in the Marlborough Sounds is not known. They may descend from animals released there by Captain James Cook in 1773 and 1777. It is more likely, however, that they were introduced by whalers during the first half of the 19th century. In 2007 there were thought to be only about 100 remaining.

How to cite this page:

Allan Gillingham, 'Pigs and the pork industry - Early farming and feral breeds', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Allan Gillingham, published 24 Nov 2008