The cattle breed that made Angus famous
Discovering the history and heritage of the world famous Aberdeen Angus beef cattle
Over the centuries, Scotland’s regions have reared, and named, droves of native cattle breeds, such as the Highland, Ayrshire, Shetland, Galloway and Luing. But it’s the youngest, the Aberdeen-Angus, that grew up into the world famous breed and brand for beef, so prized on the farm and fork it is now the United States’ most common beef breed, and Britain’s second after the continental Limousin.
The Aberdeen-Angus story begins 200 years ago, when pioneer farmer Hugh Watson of Keillor Farm near Dundee started selecting the best of Angus’s native black, hornless (termed ‘polled’) ‘Doddies’ for his new herd. Hugh’s stock was later bought and refined by two progressive Aberdeenshire gentlemen, farmer William McCombie of Tillyfour Farm, and Sir George Macpherson-Grant, Laird of Ballindalloch Estate on the River Spey. Successively, these three north-east experimenters gave the breed its double-barrelled name, and an enduring genetic formula as much, if not more, in demand now as then.
Given the Aberdeen-Angus’s almost embarrassing list of virtues, it’s easy to see why Scottish farmers find it economical to pay on average £5,000 for a bull, and £2,500 for a cow, at local livestock auctions such as Forfar Mart. Long-lived, placid and motherly by nature, the beasts are easy to calve and rear, with a hardiness to survive diverse and harsh conditions, insulated against the worst weathers by a silky, tufty ‘top-coat’, and a dense, mossy ‘vest’.
But, bottom-line, the breed is a commercially astute choice to increase farmers’ profit per hectare, because it’s supremely efficient at converting grass or ‘forage’ into prime beef without supplementary grain. The meat’s quality is a bonus: deep-red flesh marbled with creamy-white fat for succulent, juicy steaks, as popular with the butcher as the consumer, who pays top price for the brand on restaurant menus and supermarket shelves.
However, grass-fed beef is also a matter of sustainability and health, argues Geordie Soutar, a Forfar farmer breeding the original, pure Aberdeen Angus line in its ancestral heartland. ‘The Aberdeen-Angus has a mega, mega role to play in the world,’ he explains. ‘Grain yields have plateaued around the world, yet we need more and more cereals for human consumption. It’s not sustainable to rear high input cattle, or feed them 10kg of grain to get a 2kg gain in live weight. Pigs and poultry need grain, but Aberdeen-Angus cattle don’t – they forage, converting grass into top quality beef. The intra-muscular fat, the marbling, is healthier, unsaturated fat, which melts on cooking and carries the fabulous flavour. The American’s deem Aberdeen-Angus fit for the ‘white tablecloth trade’ – the crème de la crème.’
Over the years, breeders have crossed the original Aberdeen-Angus with imported bloodlines to create new characteristics. Now, typically, beef bearing the Aberdeen-Angus label is 25 to 50 per cent crossed with a faster growing or higher yielding breed. Realising Angus’s pure breed faced extinction, Soutar began a breeding programme in 1995, collecting all eight of the remaining ‘native-bred’ specimens located near his farm, Kingston. Twenty years on, his mission is an international success story, with a thriving business selling cattle semen and embryos as far as Sweden, Estonia and Uruguay, and so many breeding females the bloodline was removed from the rare breeds list in 2012. ‘There’s now a demand worldwide for these genetics,’ Soutar says, ‘to go back to where we were, and what our forbears did.’
‘Angus farmers like Geordie are locked into the history and future of the breed,’ added Ron McHattie, CEO of the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society, which welcomes the Aberdeen Angus World Forum to Scotland in 2017. ‘It’s a huge event,’ he says, ‘we’re expecting in excess of 800 delegates, coming to see where it all started.’
Spotting another opportunity, Geordie plans to harvest Aberdeen-Angus’s popularity to boost local tourism: ‘The more people who make the connection between Angus cattle and Angus county, the more people will make the pilgrimage here. I would like people to come and enjoy the ancestral homeland of the breed.’