The History of the Breed
The kunekune is unique to NZ. Origin is unknown, mostly because there is a lack of documented evidence on when exactly they arrived and how many. Early records did not distinguish between breeds of pigs. Captain Cook brought two types of pigs- large feral pigs called Captain Cookers and Small Whites from Yorkshire (now extinct). These interbred with other pigs brought by whalers and sealers in the early 1800’s as similar pigs exist in Asia, South America and Polynesia and genetic studies have linked kunekunes to Asian pigs –like the Vietnamese potbellied pig.
The history of the pig is closely associated with NZ Māori, who found the pigs docile and did not root up their unfenced gardens like bigger pigs. They were easy to keep and were prized for their placid nature and their tendency to stay close to home, as they have always been domesticated. They were valued for their meat and especially their fat, which was used to preserve other foods.
In the late 1970’s, kunekunes were rediscovered (MAF thought they were an illegal import!), with only about 50 purebred animals left. From a purebred base stock of 6 sows & 3 boars, there are thousands of animals (registered and unregistered) in NZ and in 10 other countries. It is thanks to dedicated people like Michael Willis, Willowbank Wildlife Park, Christchurch and John Simister, Staglands, Akatarawa Valley, that the breed was saved from extinction. Thus, kunekunes are no longer considered a true rare breed.
Nowadays, the kunekune enjoys a niche as a pet pig. Its unique appearance, placid nature and small round size that made it unattactive to the commercial market has allowed it a place as a lifestyle pig, especially in orchards.
Kunekune means ‘fat and round’ in Te Reo Māori. It is smaller than other breeds, although an overweight kunekune can still be quite a large pig. The classic shape is a short legged, short snouted pig with high depth of fat, giving it a rounded body contour. A plump kunekune looks very different to a commercial pig and the short snout gives a very comical appearance. The tassels or pirepire are about 4cm long and hang from the lower jaw. Not all kunekunes have tassels, there is a large number without tassels. This does not mean they are poorer breeding stock, rather like having fat earlobes or no ear lobes. Some kunekunes have one tassel or sometimes they’re not firmly attached and come off through accident or injury. Breeders prefer tasselled pigs to ensure they have plenty of offspring with tassels. There are only 3 pig breeds in the world with tassels.
Coat colour varies considerably. The Māori traditionally preferred black- other colours have been introduced from other breeds, with the most popular colours being gold, black and white, brown, black and tan or cream, often with random spots and splashes. Some piglets show juvenile ‘striping’ reminiscent of feral breeds- these are lateral stripes of colour to help camouflage them in the wild. These usually disappear by 4 months of age. The texture can vary from short & silky giving a sleek appearance to rough, coarse curls giving an unkempt look. The coat also varies with the seasons, with a marked difference between summer and winter. Extensive hair loss in the summer is common.
The typical kunekune is a sociable, placid pig that likes close human contact. They are intelligent, resourceful and affectionate- with a passion for food & a good scratch. They are safe & trustworthy around children and rarely bite, if it happens - it is usually when food is involved!
Boars usually start to mature about 8 months of age, but don’t become fully fertile until 1 year old. Sows start to mature early, but should not be mated until 1 year old. When a sow comes into season, there is a change in behaviour and swelling of the vulva. Testing the sow by putting pressure on her back to see if she will ‘stand’ for a mating is not always reliable as some kunekunes will stand still whether they are in season or not. The season lasts from 8 -48 hours, normally occurring every 18-22 days until pregnancy occurs.
The gestation (pregnancy) lasts about 116 days (3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days). Transfer the sow to a farrowing paddock or pen about 10 days before she is due. This is the ideal time to worm the sow. A few hours before farrowing, she will start nesting (collecting vegetable matter to make a farrowing area). Ensure there is plenty of choice- sawdust, shavings, straw, hay or fleece wool. The use of a heat lamp behind a farrowing rail will improve survival rates. Kunekunes make excellent mothers and rarely attack their piglets or have trouble giving birth. Crushing the piglets sometimes occurs, especially if the mother is overweight or is ‘too placid” and won’t get up when she hears a piglet squealing. It is a good idea to have a board at the bottom of the doorway for the first 3 days to stop the piglets getting lost, but not too high or the sow will have trouble getting over it, if her udder is close to the ground. Watch out for piglets drowning in water troughs- give small saucers of water until they get older.
The ideal time to wean piglets is 8-10 weeks. Once the sow is pushing the piglets out of the way for food, feed them separately in an area, where she can’t get at the food. Piglets will wean themselves by 4 months of age. It is usually a good idea to reduce the sow’s food intake, once the piglets are weaned as she might become too fat. Sows will usually come into season 1 week after the piglets have been weaned.
The average litter size is 6-8 piglets, although first litters of up to 12 are not unusual. A small litter of 1-2 piglets is rare. The sow sometimes aborts or reabsorbs the piglets and starts again. As a sow ages, the number of piglets per litter may reduce, but they can keep on reproducing up to about 8 years of age. Increasing her food intake for 2 weeks prior to mating has the effect of flushing the ovaries and can increase litter size.
Sows that have low litters or are poor mothers should be culled, but often litter size is affected by environmental factors such as feed or boar fertility. It is not just the sow’s genetic makeup.
Many experienced breeders have found that boar fertility varies throughout the year- fertility is reduced in very hot and very cold weather. A short illness can also affect his fertility for 6-8 weeks. Sows show infertility in several waysfailure to come on heat, difficulty in detecting heat cycles, or continued return to service (i.e failure to conceive after mating). Causes include hormonal, damaged reproductive tract from infection or being too fat or too thin. Hormonal treatments can help, but sometimes it is a matter of being patient with a set time limit of 12 months before culling.
Pigs are bossy when it comes to socialising with other pigs so try and avoid mixing strange pigs together, unnecessarily. There is a definite social hierarchy in a group, and they don’t readily welcome newcomers to the group. But they will happily cuddle up together on a cold night!
Kunekunes usually graze quite happily with other animals in the paddock, although feeding time can be a bit chaotic. Pigs are very social animals and are happier kept in pairs or groups. Many breeders run the boars and sows together long term and only separate them at farrowing time.
Good netting and/or electric fencing is often needed to keep them in- a single hot wire about 15cm off the ground is usually enough. Sometimes kunekunes need to be nose ringed if they have bouts of rooting up the ground, particularly if the ground is soft after rain or if there are grass grubs about. Young pigs can be ringed by using 2 or 3 nose clips along the top edge of the snout. They come out after a while, but the pig has learnt not to root and so may not need to be replaced. In pigs over 8 months that persistently carry on rooting a more permanent solution is to put a proper metal pig ring through the cartilage of the nose by a vet.
Pigs are not heat tolerant and need shade or a well-ventilated shelter in summer. Ideally, they should be able to make a mud wallow to cool off and keep biting flies off. If pigs are bothered by flies, spray them with fly repellant.
The ideal pig shelter is one big enough to hold ALL the pigs with some room to spare, well ventilated but not draughty and rain proof. A solid floor is best; made more comfortable with some kind of bedding (vegetable matter or old mattresses/duvets).
Kunekunes are a grass grazing pig and can cope with a high fibre diet with adult pigs being able to maintain good body condition on grass alone. But as pasture quality varies around the country, it is normal to supplement their diet when grass is in short supply. If you don’t want to buy in commercial feed, ensure that food scraps or supplements have enough nutritional value to give the pigs what they need. Be careful with choking hazards like corn cobs as bossier pigs will compete for food. Pregnant and lactating sows are always fed more often (two or three times daily) as their nutritional needs are greater. For young pigs, a food supplement should be given until about 9 months of age.
Different foods contain different ratios of carbohydrate, fibre and protein. Pasture contains about 3% protein, bread about 8% (but also high carbohydrate), potatoes 0.5% and milk 3.5-5%. Cheese is an excellent supplement but like milk, can cause diarrhoea due to high fat content.
The main commercial pig pellet rations vary from 12 to 16.5% protein but not all contain the essential vitamins and amino acids of a nutritionally complete food. A suggested rate of feeding:
- Adult boar or sow 1-1.5kg per day
- Lactating sow 1-1.5kg + 0.2kg per piglet per day
- Piglets 2-4 months 0.5kg per day
- Weaners 4-9 months 0.75kg per day
Pigs should only be fed once daily when supplements are required and always have access to clean, fresh water. Adult sows can drink up to 5L per day when lactating, especially in hot weather. Creep feed is not usually required for piglets unless the sow does not have enough milk.
Common Disease Problems
Diarrohoea - caused by dietary upset or infection and can be life threatening, especially in very young piglets. Dietary causes- sudden change in diet, undiluted milk or too much fat in diet. Infection from E. Coli bacterial scours, Rotavirus or other random bacteria or viruses. Highly contagious- it can affect whole litters. Internal parasites in rare cases can cause diarrohoea, but is usually a symptom, not the original cause. If pigs are quieter than normal, have a reduced appetite or have blood in the diarrhoea, they will need prompt treatment with antibiotics and electrolytes.
Respiratory disorders – Usually caused by pneumonia, bronchitis or nasal cavity infections. Rapid or laboured breathing means a serious illness and needs immediate treatment. Coughing may be due to bronchitis or pneumonia but is more likely to be a lungworm infection.
Leptospirosis-This infection can cause kidney disease, generalised illness or sows to abort. Although it is not common in pigs, it is a common health hazard to humans dealing with dairy cattle and is spread by rats. (A given around pigs as attracted by food scraps).
Abortion – There are three main infections that cause abortion or weak piglets to be born: Parvovirus, Toxoplasmosis and Leptospirosis. When a large number of pigs are kept together, it is recommended to vaccinate against lepto & parvovirus. Toxins of certain fungi in cereal-based foods can also cause abortion. Always handle and dispose of aborted material or dead piglets with care so as not to spread the disease.
Mastitis – Infection in the udder can occur before or after farrowing. The area is hot, swollen and painful. The most likely time to occur is farrowing or weaning. Antibiotic treatment is necessary to clear infection. After a bout of mastitis, milk production is usually significantly reduced- there may not be enough milk for all the piglets.
Ringworm-A fungal infection common in young piglets, appearing as crusty rings on stomach and legs. Spray with iodine.
Lice – More likely in winter as lice breed in cold weather. Can be picked up from other pigs at shows or new pigs arriving on the property. Lice are host specific, which means only pigs get pig lice. They are large and brown and move around when disturbed. They lay their eggs on the lower side of the neck and on the back of the legs. The eggs resemble cream spots stuck on the hair. Use a topical lice powder or ivermectin injection.
Mange-Occurs mainly in summer- large crusty, reddened areas on the head and legs. In piglets, it can be severe as they don’t have much immunity, so they end up with dry, crusty patches all over their bodies and well and poor growth rates. Wash all over with a topical insecticide or use ivermectin injection.
Greasy pig disease- A bacterial skin infection, mainly in young pigs in warm humid climates. The skin is red, crusty and weeping and often the piglet is in poor health. Treat with antibiotics and topical antiseptics.
Congenital abnormalities- Sometimes piglets are born with deformities incompatible with normal life such as cleft palate or no anus. Umbilical or scrotal hernias are more common- these pigs should not be bred from.
Worms – There are four types in pigs – round worm, stomach worm, lung worm and kidney worm. The most common is round worm- treat with ivermectin injection. All piglets should be wormed at weaning and at 3 months Adult pigs should be wormed every 6-12 months, with sows being treated at pre-farrowing and pre-mating.
Vaccinations – When a large number of pigs are present together- they should be routinely vaccinated against lepto and parvo once every six months to prevent abortion. Other diseases advisable to vaccinate against are E.coli scours, tetanus, Mycoplasma pneumonia and Haemophilus pneumonia. The best place to inject is in the neck behind the ear. The skin is not tough or fatty and less likely to bend the needle.
Buying a pig
Ideally, buy registered pedigree stock from a respectable breeder. Kunekunes vary in colour, size and shape so personal preference has a big influence. The main things to look for are a short snout, sound feet and legs, tassels present and a good temperament. Look at the parents to get an idea as to how the piglets will turn out in size and temperament.
An ideal pet is a neutered male (barrow) or a sow. Whilst boars do still make good pets, they grow bigger tusks when older than barrows and are difficult to rehome.
If pigs are to be slaughtered, the best time is 8-10 months old. The meat is red and very low in cholesterol. Kunekunes are best for sausages or salami.
It is best to buy two, so they are company for each other. When taking a new family member home, make sure they are in a secure pen or small paddock for the first few days, until they recognise you as the food source. Once they have settled down and not in stress mode- you can let them out but be aware they will go exploring and find any opportunity to escape!
Many local authorities have strict by laws and regulations about keeping pigs, especially in suburbia. It might pay to check before getting a pig and even if the by-laws allow it, sometimes the neighbours won’t. It is best to get them on board, especially if an escapee ends up on their property! Some councils have restrictions on where and how to keep pigs, specify the type of housing and some will not allow them at all.
Pigs are dirty- they certainly are not- when allowed enough space, they have clearly designated eating, sleeping, toilet and play/rest areas.
Horses are frightened of pigs – Only if they haven’t grown up with them. I had one sow who used to stand under the horse’s tummy and tug the horse cover down as a rain shield from whatever direction the wind was blowing! Horses need time to get used to piggy smells, although kunekunes don’t smell half as bad as other breeds of pig!
Kunekunes are full of fat and not worth the trouble – Only if they have too many cream buns! If you restrict their diet to just grass, with the odd bit of carbohydrate/ fruit/veg thrown in - they will remain slim. Pigs are omnivores like humans, so variety is the key e.g too much fruit can rot their teeth. Obese kunekunes are much more susceptible to joint problems – however to be truthful - due to their short legs - arthritis in the knees and shoulders is a hereditary problem in some breeding lines and more apparent as they age.
Pigs root up pasture and make a big mess- You have to find the right lines that don’t know how to dig (although they can copy others). As stated previously, they will root if the ground is soft as they love kikuyu roots. If you feel strongly, fence them in their own area e.g orchard and ring their noses.
Pigs are known to eat baby lambs or chickens – this is true for larger breeds of pigs or perhaps if the animal is injured. Prevention is far better than cure- keep lambing ewes out of the pig paddock or vice versa and quarantine any sick chickens.
Kunekunes don’t live as long as other pigs – their average life span in 10 years but can live up to 15 years. If they don’t pass away naturally from cardiac arrest and have major health issues (kidney failure), a vet can euthanise them.
Further information: https://kunekune.co.nz