Scotland’s Food Landscape: Cattle

Scotland’s Food Landscape: Cattle

Raising cows for beef and dairy has long been a central part of Scotland's food and farming story

The milk in your porridge, the steak in your pie, the suet in haggis, the curds in crowdie, the cream in cranachan: Scotland’s traditional diet would be quite different without cows.

Grass and rough grazing covers 71% of Scotland’s agricultural land – land that’s never likely to be viable for the commercial growing of fruit, vegetables or crops, but it's land that's perfectly suitable for cattle and sheep. This is particularly true of the Highlands, with their long, hard winters and generally poor soil: archaeological evidence shows Highland cattle were reared from as far back as the sixth century by the clans, tenants and, after the Clearances, by crofters.

Ancient Movements

The hardiest of breeds and the easiest to handle, Highland cattle in folds of up to 2000 were once walked by drovers down from the north Highlands and the islands in arduous journeys, sometimes swimming between islands and the mainland, and contending with the elements, thieving reivers and mountainous terrain. Setting off in late summer, the destination was October’s Crieff Tryst, Scotland’s largest market until Falkirk overtook it in 1770 for being closer to English customers. The practice of droving declined as farming methods changed and transport technology improved: Scotland’s last drover died in 1957, aged 91, on the shores of Loch Fyne.

From mid-May, several months before this journey, crofters would move their livestock to upland pastures, a form of transhumance that continued until the 19th century in the Highlands. As the lush grass conditioned the beasts, crowdie and butter were made from rich summer milk. Thomas Pennant’s A Tour in Scotland in 1769 describes how the women and children lived in shielings, or rough huts, for these weeks (while the men headed back to work the lowland crop fields):

‘Here we refreshed ourselves with some goats' whey, at a Sheelin, or Bothay, a cottage made of turf, the dairy-house where the Highland shepherds, or graziers, live with their herds and flocks, and during the fine season make butter and cheese…

‘…Their food, oat-cakes, butter or cheese, and often the coagulated blood of their cattle spread on their bannocks. Their drink, milk, whey, and sometimes, by way of indulgence, whisky.’

Different Breeds

Many of the Scottish cattle breeds familiar today are relatively modern introductions: breeder Hugh Watson first showed his new Aberdeen Angus in 1820, and the Luing breed was established from 1947. While Aberdeen Angus is now the most common beef breed in the USA, since the first Limousin arrived in Leith Docks in 1971 it has played second fiddle in Scotland (or more accurately third, after Charolais).

Having fallen out of fashion for being smaller than their continental cousins, traditional Scottish breeds such as Shorthorn and Galloways are building in popularity. This has been encouraged by the questions asked after the horsemeat scandal of 2013, and by a growing interest in the farming and eating qualities of native breeds. Sales of Highland beef have picked up despite the animals being ‘weedy’ compared to other breeds, in the words of Ken Headspeath, who manages Borlands and Balvarran farms and owns Highland Drovers. ‘They’re not the six-foot rugby players of the beef world,’ he admits. It’s the flavour of animals that spend their whole lives roaming for forage that counts with his customers, and he has seen his business increase from one animal going to market to two or three a week.

A particular beneficiary of this trend has been the Shorthorn, which broke market records for bull prices in February 2014, and is now, numerically, Britain’s fastest growing breed. Help has come from an unexpected quarter: in 2011, Morrison’s launched their Traditional Beef Scheme. This pays farmers a premium for beef from native British breeds, with an additional premium for Shorthorn: the Beef Shorthorn Cattle Society saw calf registrations increase by over a quarter between July 2012 to 13, which Society secretary Frank Milne attributed to investment directly resulting from the supermarket’s scheme.

Chef Frederic Berkmiller serves Shorthorn at his Edinburgh restaurants L’escargot Bleu and Blanc, for being ‘tender, with unbelievable flavour’. ‘I think we will see more and more of it,’ he says. ‘Aberdeen Angus has been well known for 40 years, but Shorthorn has been left behind or crossed with other cattle. In recent years, in London particularly, we’ve been seeing a lot of money paid for it because chefs are asking for pure breeds. It has lived happily and been raised slowly.’

Even dairy cows are showing signs of this traditional resurgence, with the Ayrshire milk cow increasing in popularity: Barwheys Dairy in South Ayrshire started cheese-making in 2011 using only their own pedigree Ayrshire herd’s milk. In East Ayrshire, Ann Dorward of Dunlop Dairy has always had Ayrshires: theirs is the traditional milk used in Dunlop cheese. ‘More people are crossing back to get the hardiness out of the Ayrshires,’ she explains. ‘It’s not all about getting milk out of the cows, but about them lasting.’

A Scottish Premium

In 1987, Scotland was the first country to introduce independently audited farm assurance standards, with feeding, traceability, welfare and processing stringently monitored by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS). Scotch Beef was awarded Protected Geographical Indication status in 2004, and QMS won a marketing award in 2012 for increasing PGI beef sales by 30% in one year, making it London’s leading beef brand.

However a number of chefs are at pains to go further than this. Aware that the term ‘Scotch Beef’ can apply to any cattle born, bred and killed in Scotland, from any farm, of any breed, they buy whole pure-breed carcasses that are then butchered to their specifications. ‘I look for the breed, hanging time and the way the animal has been raised, fed and looked after,’ says Berkmiller, who buys Dexter beef from Sunnyside Farm in Dumfries & Galloway and Shorthorn from Perthshire-based Blackford Farm, from whom he has also bought his first Wagyu carcase.

Andrew Fairlie, head chef at Scotland’s only two Michelin star restaurant at Gleneagles, say this is the only way to get the consistency he demands: 'We tend to order about six weeks in advance, minimum: I’ll speak to the butcher and order a carcase. I think the quality has always been good, but we couldn’t just say: ‘Let’s put on a sirloin’. In my experience all the pure breed meat we’ve had has been better.’

While the beef herd in Scotland is declining – in 2013 there were 446,945 beef cows in Scotland, some 58,555 fewer than in 1993, caused principally by farmers selling their herds as they approach retirement – the successful marketing of Scotch Beef has increased demand and led to higher prices. This is good for farmers, says Stuart Ashworth, QMS Head of Economics Services: ‘To grow our industry we need to have a period of stability with prices around current levels to encourage production.

‘This, of course, impacts on consumers as prices are higher. However, it does mean securing a reliable and secure source of high quality meat for the consumer in the future.’

Dairy Dilemmas

In January 2014, the Scottish Dairy Cattle Association (SDCA) released annual figures showing that the number of dairy herds had fallen below the 1000 mark for the first time since records began 110 years previously. While record herd sizes mean the decline in numbers is less pronounced, the industry is aware that both realistic milk prices and a trend of higher returns are necessary to maintain present overall production levels.

Organic milk is a growing trend, now representing five per cent of total milk sales, and more dairy farms and companies are moving into cheese production: in 2013 Graham’s Family Dairy launched a range of cheddars, and Cream O’Galloway Dairy Co. started selling soft cheeses.

Out to Graze

One factor that changes little, however, is the percentage of Scotland's land best suited to grass and rough grazing. While none of the rules regarding Scotch Beef pertain to the percentage of grass or grain an animal feeds on, generally cattle are put out to grass from May to October, and brought inside for the rest of the year, to be fed on silage and grain. In many other countries – France for example – cattle are fed almost entirely on grain.

For that reason statistics analysing the amount of grain required to produce a kilo of beef (up to 7:1) do not apply to Scotland. Forage-based farming systems are efficient: one kilo of beef produced by an upland suckler system, where beef calves are raised by their mothers to six or eight months, requires an intake of only 0.92 kilos of protein suitable for human consumption. Scotland’s permanent grassland also plays an important role in methane capture, and there’s no need to divert water from humans to animals: Scotland has enough rain. Suckler cows kept outdoors for much of the time also help maintain many hill and upland habitats. In short, as farmer Sascha Grierson of Hugh Grierson Organic puts it: ‘This is what we grow well.

‘We have this lovely product, and we need to protect it and look after it. We are ahead of the game, and we need to keep asking questions, and thinking of how we can stay ahead of it.’