The rare breed animals thriving in Cairngorms National Park landscape
Cairngorms are perfectly suited to farming Europe's hardiest rare breed Soay sheep, deer and pigs
The Cairngorms National Park certainly isn’t a habitat for softies, yet its tough landscape and harsh weather are well suited to farming Europe’s hardiest rare breeds. Sandy Neil meets the self-sufficient animals who can take care of themselves
‘Wild farming’ in these mountains began in 1952, when Swedish herder Mikel Utsi reintroduced Britain’s only herd of reindeer from Arctic Scandinavia. He set out to prove that Rangifer tarandus (the same species as caribou) could live and breed again in the Highlands, as he’d read they once had in the Orkneyinga Saga. ‘Looking across Rothiemurchus Forest to the Cairngorms from the railway bridge at Aviemore,’ Mikel wrote, ‘I was instantly reminded of reindeer pastures in Lapland.’ The reindeer’s chief food – ground, rock and tree lichens – grew too on Britain’s highest, coldest and snowiest plateau, and, as Mikel predicted, numbers flourished.
The 150-strong, free-ranging Cairngorms Reindeer Herd was split in 1990, and a share established for display at Wild Farm on the Crown Estate at Glenlivet near Tomintoul, where hill farmers installed other hardy rare breeds to complement their independent, tough reindeer, and extract most nutrition and taste from rugged Highland flora.
Unsurprisingly for a breed that’s lived on St Kilda for 6,000 years, Soay sheep are skilled at fending for themselves. The wee, primitive ancestors of the goat-like mouflon don’t suffer foot rot or fly strike – or need shearing, shelter, or help lambing. Soay thrive on the Cairngorms’ rough pastures, laying down lean, tender, intense meat, as successfully and deliciously as Belted Galloway cattle or ‘Belties’, another ‘nae bother’ Scots breed, coloured black, red or dun, with a distinctive white stripe round its belly.
Wild Farm harvests gamey venison from red deer – a native species in Scotland, and increasing in population, in the country’s forests, hills and moors – and pretty, flighty fallow deer, introduced by Norman hunters 1,000 years ago. Finally wild boar roam and root the grassy sward, but, despite their name, they’re Wild Farm’s only animal to need a daily feed – or else they escape in search of food elsewhere.
Other farmers in the Cairngorms National Park are seeing the benefits in rare breeds. At Torrans Farm at Tomintoul, Tony and Jan Goodall rear rare-breed, free-range Large Black and Oxford Sandy and Black pedigree pigs, selling their dark, delectable, slow-reared meat at local farmers’ markets and online.
‘We just wanted decent pork,’ admits Tony: ‘Anything we bought from the supermarkets tasted like cardboard.’ Their porkers, two of Britain’s oldest pig breeds, thrive on outdoor living, like their Soay sheep. ‘It takes them 16–18 months to mature,’ he says, so they cost more to raise, as opposed to four months for commercial sheep. But for the meat’s flavour, slow-grown is most definitely worth it.’