HARRY TROTTER is snorting and his bristled face is caked with mud as he ambles up to rare-breed farmer William Marshall. ''Good pig,'' Marshall says to the animal and gives him a pat.
Trotter is a Large Black, one of 27 breeds of rare animals Marshall painstakingly raises on Kangaroo Island in an effort to save them from extinction and bring new flavours to the plates of Australia.
''I'm the Indiana Jones of rare breeds,'' Marshall says of his ability to track down pig, cattle, sheep and poultry either facing extinction or being inter-bred with other strains of animal that will threaten their future as pure breeds.
Visitors can check out Rare Breeds, on the island's north coast, west of Stokes Bay, for a tour of the zoo-cum-farm, traipsing past pens holding teacup-sized Wessex piglets earmarked for further breeding or the dinner table. Sheep and miniature cattle roam freely, while pretty silver and speckled Sussex chickens peck in the straw.
''Most breeds I have here are more rare than panda bears or Siberian tigers,'' Marshall says as he leads the tour around the farm. He can digress to a complete history of the Black Head Persian sheep or to the Nadudana, the smallest cattle breed in the world.
He stops by a handful of Kangaroo Island Baudin pigs, which have survived for more than 200 years in genetic isolation in the wild on the island. He managed to get a sow and three male pigs just before bushfires annihilated all the wild pigs. Marshall is now running a breeding program to conserve the last of the gene pool, collecting DNA samples for potential cloning in the future.
''The problem we have is cross-breeding with other pigs on the island,'' he says. ''So I have a handful of the original strain and you can't find them anywhere else.''
Marshall runs the farm in an environmental bid to bring rare breeds of pig, cattle, sheep and poultry back to sustainable levels in an ethical way. Some are sold as meat to top restaurants in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.
''If you're going to be critical, maybe one or two animals out of a litter will be worth using for breeding,'' he says. ''You can't afford to breed inferior animals.'' The meat side of the business is a thrifty answer to a serious problem. ''Eating them ensures their survival,'' he says.
''People think lamb is lamb but every breed is genetically very different. It's not the sort of thing I'm going to sell to the mainstream, also because there are not thousands to be sold as meat, but when people try it they realise it's very different.
''Getting people into a restaurant and getting them to give it a go, that's the uphill battle.''
The taste of a Kangaroo Island Baudin pig compared with a mass-produced one from the supermarket, Marshall says, is as different as a sun-ripened tomato, in season and picked straight from the vine, compared with one taken from cold storage, out of season. The slow-growing Large Black carry lots of intramuscular fat, which has more flavour and better texture than generic pigs.
Marshall approaches restaurants directly, selling whole carcasses. Not every animal or breed on the farm is good for eating and some are kept as examples of their type, perfect for regeneration rather than the plate. Harry Trotter, a king among pigs, snorts his approval.
[ FULL STORY here: 8 February 2011, The Sydney Morning Herald]