for Farmers Weekly September 2013.
I went in search of the Loch Ness monster last month. I hasten to add it wasn’t my idea. We had a pair of students from an agricultural school in France living-in with us on a work placement for four weeks. Going in search of Nessie was on their wish list, not mine.
We didn’t find Nessie on the day we visited the North of Scotland but there were other creatures noted as being absent as well. Sheep of any breed were scarce but there weren’t many of that other iconic Scottish creature – the Hielan’ Coo. By the look of those unkempt hills in the North it’s time she was re-introduced back into her natural environment.
There are many breeds of livestock that are named after the environment where they evolved but the Highland cow is quite unique. None of the others could take her place in her natural environment.
We have our own native Galloway cattle down here in the South West where I live. They are brilliant cattle but these are girly wee hills with a pleasant climate down here in Galloway compared to the Highlands.
Just looking at all that expanse of empty land in the Highlands last makes me think that the resurgence of the Highland breed is possibly just around the corner.
With the likelihood of a minimum stocking rate being attached to the next generation of Single Farm Payments something is going to be needed to stock those hills if a landowner wants to receive a single payment.
And it won’t be sheep; they’re too expensive to keep. Slave labour and the high value of wool planted sheep into those hills at the end of the 18th Century. Expensive labour and the low value of wool drove them back off in the 21st.
Prior to the Highland Clearances and the introduction of sheep it would have been cattle that grazed those hills. The native cattle were cleared as well as the people to make way for sheep farming. So the idea of stocking the Highlands with cattle is not an alien concept.
In terms of the environment and restoring nature’s balance there are also compelling reasons why Highland cattle should be restored to graze the Highlands at this precise moment in time.
When the sheep appeared 200 years ago, for obvious reasons, it wasn’t long until the Sea Eagle was hunted to extinction. But, with the new, bullet proof, Sea Eagle flourishing everywhere I would suggest that keeping Highland cattle will soon be the only fruitful way of farming livestock in the Highlands in the future.
There’s just one thing holding back this great revolution…well there’s two things actually and they’re both growing out of her head. The thing that makes Highland cattle so attractive to the eye will undoubtedly stop this revolution from taking place.
There are three obstacles that make cattle with horns very unattractive to commercial farmers whose main driver is their pockets rather than their eye. The first is that they are undoubtedly more dangerous to workers; the second is that horned cattle are more expensive to handle in terms of equipment and time and the third is that most abattoirs don’t want them for the first two reasons.
An Easy-care Hornless Highlander won’t be so nice to look at but they could be a mighty attractive proposition to commercial farmers in the Highlands if those three obstacles are removed.
After all a breed like the Ayrshire cow would never have survived in Ayrshire if the breeders had insisted on keeping their horns.