2020 has been an unusual year for birthdays. From socially distanced garden parties and a quick coffee in the park to strange and often glitchy gatherings via Zoom, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we celebrate another turn around the sun.

At the time of writing, Greater Manchester had been placed under Tier 3 restrictions. Luckily for me, my birthday took place at the beginning of October and prior to talk of tightening the reins. I was just grateful to be allowed out of the house.

Life since March has been slow and cautious and, while many businesses are open to the public, I much prefer to spend my leisure time around fewer people and outside. The handful of times I’ve been for dinner in the city have been wonderful, but anything longer than an hour or two and I begin to feel anxious. So when my boyfriend Adam heard about a small non-profit in Huddersfield where we could spend the morning with rescue pigs who had been re-homed and were now living naturally in 10 acres of reclaimed woodland, he knew he was onto a winner.

I absolutely adore pigs. Not only are they cute, they’re also fiercely intelligent (they can be taught new things and are one of the only animals to pass the ‘mirror test’ proving that they are self-aware), friendly and, according to Lyall Watson in The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs, they’re “incurable optimists and get a big kick out of just being”. What’s not to love?

Pigs in the WoodsThe sanctuary, Pigs in the Wood, is home to 20 pigs who are cared for by a team of volunteers who work seven days a week ensuring that the needs of their mud-loving wards are always met. Their aim is to provide a home for pigs that have been abused, mistreated and abandoned. Usually, the sanctuary raises funds by operating walking tours (at a cost of £5 per head) and organises events such as the annual Pig Gig and Halloween shindig. But, owing to social distancing restrictions, they are unable to operate at full capacity which has left them struggling to cover day-to-day costs.

A couple of weeks before we were due to visit, we heard the news that existing tours were cancelled but a bubble of six visitors would be permitted to follow a pre-set route at a cost of £40. We’d already been talking about donating to the sanctuary should our trip be called off, so we were more that willing to pay the entire bubble fee for just the two of us to visit. Essentially, it was like having our own private tour. 

So, with pockets full of apples (a pig’s favourite treat), we headed in the direction of Huddersfield. There’s no set parking area for the sanctuary (we spent a good 15 minutes driving up and down the same road, shouting at the sat nav before we finally stopped and asked a volunteer where we could park), but you can park your car right outside the gate (on the road) with no problem. 

Pigs in the WoodsAnother thing we didn’t factor in was the time of year. The wood is chock-full of oak trees and, since it’s autumn, they are shedding their acorns. They fell from above like giant hailstones and certainly left their mark. But we also didn’t realise that they’d have a strange effect on the pigs. One of the volunteers explained that they had been snaffling the woodland treats and not only getting a nasty bout of diarrhoea (lovely), but were also getting high. As it turns out, green acorns are highly addictive if you’ve got trotters and a curly tail.

I wasn’t entirely sure what a stoned pig looked like, but I was soon to find out. We began by handing out breakfast to some of the porkers who were clearly experiencing the after-effects of a heavy night on the acorns.

One thing to bear in mind about Pigs in the Wood, especially if you’re planning a visit in the autumn/winter months, is that it’s extremely muddy and the sludge is pretty deep in places. Perfect for pigs but not brilliant for a woman in pink ankle wellies. Wear old clothes, bring a warm jumper and a waterproof and remember to stuff your pockets with lots of snacks for the pigs because they will come looking for something tasty to eat. The sanctuary relies on volunteers (there’s a team of pig lovers who operate on a rota system) and we were greeted at the entrance by two workers covering the morning tour. With just the four of us in the sanctuary, I felt completely safe as I followed the volunteers (at a safe distance, of course) through the wood and chatted about each of the pigs. 

ThelmaMy favourite was called Thelma, who is often found in the woods rooting around, but I also held a soft spot for George, a solitary little black pig who is gluten-intolerant but still likes to thieve Digestive biscuits from his pal’s breakfast buckets. I’d only really seen pigs in pens before so it was a real joy to experience them roaming (semi) free in the woodland. Every now and then, a curious snout would appear through the bushes followed by a lot of snuffling, floppy ears and a lovely big tum. As the volunteers reeled off facts about each resident, I was struck by the uniqueness of each piggy personality. I was also delighted to learn that pigs have best friends.

But then, disaster struck. Big Wilbur, who is identified by his large tusks and big smile, had fallen over and couldn’t get up. A rescue mission ensued, which involved all hands on deck including ours, where we attempted to get a distressed Wilbur back on his feet. There was much heaving, manoeuvring and cajoling but our fingers failed to find purchase under his mud-spattered rump. He squealed and struggled, especially when another pig (his rival) decided to try and steal his breakfast. It turned out that Big Wilbur had snaffled too many green acorns and was simply stoned. We’d been worried about his recovery so we emailed the sanctuary a week later and were informed that he had fully recovered from his over-indulgence.

Pigs in the WoodsThis is not to say the experience was chaotic; social distancing was still enforced and we felt safe as we followed the volunteers around the wood. I couldn’t quite believe my luck as we were able to have so much one-on-one time with the residents. Besides, the best tours are the ones that always go slightly off-script and I came away with incredibly useful knowledge about pig narcotics and a hilarious visual of Adam trying to upturn a ginormous, stoned pig while its arch enemy attempted to snatch its biscuits. It was the best birthday I’ve had in some time.

So if you’re a pig fanatic like me, or simply want to support a struggling organisation during these trying times, please take a look at Pigs in the Wood and donate.

By Emma Yates-Badley