Saving the Aberdeen Angus breed of cattle
Geordie Soutar's commitment to pure breed Angus cattle has pulled them off the rare breeds list
Widely regarded as producing some of the finest beef in the world, the Aberdeen Angus breed was first developed by an Angus farmer in the 19th century. Susannah Pate takes up the tale
Aberdeen Angus is one of the best known breeds of cattle in the world, mostly thanks to its appearance on restaurant menus, butchers’ windows and supermarket shelves everywhere. As the name has become an international mark of quality and superior flavour, so a piece of the agricultural heritage of north-east Scotland is transported around the world.
Angus cattle breeder Hugh Watson developed a polled (hornless), black cattle in the early 19th century and found considerable success selling prime cuts to Smithfield market in London. The majority of his stock was sold to an Aberdeenshire farmer in the 1860s, and the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society was officially established in 1879.
Prized for its ability to survive in harsh conditions and turn forage into superb eating meat without the need for supplementary grain, the original Aberdeen-Angus line has been mixed with other bloodlines over the years as farmers have experimented with new ideas. Commonly, beef carrying the Aberdeen-Angus name will be 25 or 50 per cent crossed with a faster growing or higher yielding breed. As a result, very few pure Angus cattle were left – until recently. One Angus farmer has made it his personal mission to restore the native Angus line to its former glory. In 1995, Geordie Soutar started sourcing all the remaining pure-line breeds, of which there were just eight. He found them all within a few miles of Kingston, his farm near Forfar.
‘I remembered the Angus cattle of my youth,’ recalls Soutar. ‘They were small animals, smaller than the Aberdeen Angus we see today, with really good meat. They were on the verge of extinction, and I knew the calibre of these cattle so I made it my mission to perpetuate the bloodlines. I wanted to build a herd with no imported bloodlines and create the type of cattle which made Angus famous around the world.’
What started out as a personal passion has become a worldwide success story, with Soutar selling pure-breed semen and embryos across the world, as part of a major breeding programme at a ranch in America, and also to Europe and Australia. There are now over 150 breeding females, so from this year native Angus breeds will be taken off the rare breeds list. ‘This is really wonderful, because I think these cattle are the bee’s knees,’ enthuses Soutar. ‘And it is especially relevant today when cereals to feed animals are increasingly expensive and scarce. Angus cattle don’t need grain – pigs do, chickens do, but these cattle can be grass finished. Why use 12 kilos of grain, which could be used for human consumption, for an animal live weight gain of two kilos?’
Although Soutar’s main business is selling semen and embryos, he also sells meat to local butchers including James Ewart in Monifieth and MacDonalds Brothers of Pitlochry. Soutar explains: ‘The meat has wonderful marbling which makes it very succulent. Often people think fat is a bad thing, but this is an unsaturated fat and is integral to the meat’s fabulous flavour. We keep one for our freezer every year and my wife will throw a steak into the pan – no oil, no nothing – and it is divine. One thing we can stand our ground on emphatically is that the quality is second to none.’
In support of his claim, the herd has won the respect of celebrity chefs too. He appeared in the last series of the BBC’s Great British Food Revival, and has been asked by Gordon Ramsay to provide two cows for his Beef Cartel cooking events in London, showcasing beef beyond steak.
Soutar is trying to take it all in his stride: ‘Creating this herd has given me experiences I would never have had otherwise – talking to celebrity chefs and staying as the guest of a Formula 1 racing driver with a passion for our pure line beef. I mean, I’m just a little farmer frae Forfar.’