Feeling the blues in Bilsdale

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 12th October & the Gazette & Herald on 10th October 2018

One of my all-time favourite routes to drive has to be the B1257 between Helmsley and Chop Gate through Bilsdale. Along with the spectacular views and landscape, the road has a pleasing undulating quality to it that sets it apart from other well-trodden highways. If I am heading back home from the North-East, I sometimes deliberately come off the A19 early just so I can take this road. It is longer, but my goodness, it doesn’t half stir the soul!

The reason I mention it is because I saw the heading ‘Bilsdale Blues’ in my dad’s column from 14th October 1978 and assumed it was going to be about that glorious part of North Yorkshire. So I was quite surprised upon reading it that he was in fact talking about pigs!

The Bilsdale Blue, also known as the Yorkshire Blue and White, was commonly seen at local agricultural shows until the just after the Second World War. It was a white pig with big blue spots and had large, floppy ears. Unfortunately Dad reports, “I have no records of its continued existence, nor do I know if examples of this breed still exist.”

Of course, I had to find out, and it didn’t take me long to discover that sadly, the breed is now extinct. According to the British Pig Association (BPA), by 1954, only three boars were licensed, which was a minuscule figure when compared to the 16,751 Large White boars on the register. In the early days of pig rearing, individual breeds were developed in different regions to suit the local conditions and market. The Bilsdale Blue was popular because of its hardy characteristics and the fact that the sows made excellent mothers.

But as transportation became easier, and tastes for meat changed, breeds became less localised, and numbers of pure native breeds like the Bilsdale Blue diminished.

The BPA states that today, none of our native breeds have more than 500 sows registered, which puts them at risk of extinction, so it is working towards a goal of having stable figure of at least 1000 to secure the survival of their unique genetic heritage.

My research led me to the Rare Breeds Survival Trust which highlights the plight of livestock under threat. Set up in 1973, a key part of its work is collecting genetic material and storing it at the UK National Livestock Gene Bank making it possible to reintroduce a breed if extinction occurs.

Sadly, it came too late for our poor Bilsdale Blue, but according to the trust, it hasn’t lost a single breed since it was established. Pig breeds under the most threat at the moment include the British Landrace, the British Lop, the Large Black and the Middle White, with fewer than 200 sows currently registered for each one. As well as pigs, there are watchlists for sheep, cattle, equine, poultry and goats.

I was particularly saddened to learn about their latest appeal, ‘Save Our Working Class Heroes’ which is dedicated to rescuing three of our most recognisable heavy horses, the Shire, the Clydesdale and the Suffolk, all of which are at dangerously low levels. Despite the mechanisation of farming and warfare, which meant the traditional roles of these horses disappeared, the trust argues that they still have a useful role to play in areas such as the army, policing, equine therapy and commercial logging.

It would be such a shame to see these wonderful beasts vanish, especially as they served the generations before us so loyally. I remember as a child being awestruck when the magnificent Shires, decked out in their gleaming leather tack and brasses, used to visit our local shows.

Samuel Smiths brewery still stables two Shires behind the Angel and White Horse pub in Tadcaster, and the pair make local beer deliveries five days a week. Perhaps there is scope for the pub community to pull together to help save these beautiful horses. After all, to this day many of them still display the brasses from the days when the horses were used to deliver the beer. But how sad if these animals, these working class heroes for whom those brasses were made, are no longer in existence.

Thank you to Paul Foster and Jenny Horne who commented through my blog, James Larcombe who emailed, and my mum who phoned me – all think that my mystery plant featured two weeks ago is a climbing hydrangea (hydrangea petiolaris). Mystery solved!

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.


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