The grass is greener: why Scottish animals have the advantage over foreign livestock

In praise of grass

Cows eat grass, as every school child knows. Except that it’s not always the case these days. In many parts of Scotland (thanks to all our rain) grass is what grows best and gives the animals that graze it a natural advantage.

Remaining outdoors the entire year is not a particularly attractive prospect in the Scottish climate, but one of the characteristics of our native breeds of cattle is that they’re hardy enough to endure it. When grazed on grasses and moorland flora, breeds such as Belted Galloway, Highland and Aberdeen Angus have fine marbled flesh that’s low in saturated fats and contains a much higher percentage of omega three fatty acids than store-fed cattle. In fact, if kept in natural conditions their meat shows a number of the health benefits more commonly championed in wild venison, as grass-fed ruminants are also higher in protein, vitamin E, beta carotene anti-oxidants and conjugated linoleic acid. Arguably most importantly of all they also offer wonderful flavour. Geese, chickens and turkeys have these health benefits too if they are allowed to feed on grasses and other plants.

Where our awareness of seasonality has been re-awoken for fruit, vegetables and, to a lesser extent, fish, consumers are not particularly attuned to the seasonal aspect of meat. Beyond an awareness of autumn and winter being a time for game, and widespread confusion over ‘fresh Spring’ lamb (in Scotland lambs are mostly born in spring, so anything you’re eating around Easter either isn’t Scottish or is no longer lamb), we don’t tend to associate meat with a seasonal calendar.

In places where the seasons are less marked, or animals are fed predominantly on grain and silage, they are slaughtered all year around. In addition, a good deal of meat in the food chain is habitually frozen which also affects our appreciation of the seasonal dimension.

If an animal is taken to slaughter after a summer feeding on natural grasses and other flora, the flavour of their flesh is more complex as well as being sweeter and juicier, it is also darker and the fat has a yellowish tone because of the beta carotene in the animal’s diet. The fact that a large majority of Scottish cattle and sheep graze grass when it’s growing in the spring, summer and autumn is one reason why Scotch meat carries a premium. Compared to the rest of the world, Scottish livestock production is still notably extensive and pastoral.

Game still adheres to some rules of seasonality because it is, on the whole, grazing and foraging naturally the whole year round. Indeed, the shooting seasons for wild game are built around the breeding season, beginning only at the point in the year when birds have matured and fed well on the summer growth. While the grouse season starts with the ‘glorious twelfth’ of August (the traditional start of Queen Victoria’s long summer holidays at Balmoral), a gamekeeper always favours reason over tradition and will maintain a strict control over the numbers shot in order to preserve a balance between the core breeding numbers and the old males. If it has been a bad breeding season and the grouse are not ready, shooting days will be cancelled. A day off to admire – and appreciate – the green scenery.

Below is a selection of outlets for Scottish grass-fed meat. Many sell direct to the public via mail/web order: