With the support payments looking to change towards environmental factors. Native and rare breeds which suit the UK natural environments may be the answer to getting the most out of these areas. Here Ewan Pate talks to Martin Beard about the opportunities that may arise from this.
As governments carve out their post-Brexit payment models. Ewan Pate speaks to Martin Beard, the Rare Breeds Survival Trust (RBST) new vice-president, about the opportunities and challenges facing farmers who keep rare and native breeds.
Martin Beard, from Parkhill House, near Arbroath, is looking forward to the challenge of protecting the surprisingly large number of Scottish breeds which are on the charity’s watchlist as either being endangered or at risk. Mr Beard and his wife Jackie are natural enthusiasts, with hands-on experience of looking after rare breed sheep and pigs on the 10 hectares (25 acres) of land around their house but neither is from a farming background. Mr Beard’s career has been mostly in marketing for the oil industry, including spells in the Middle East and at Montrose, just up the coast from their present home. Latterly he was based in Dunblane and involved in mentoring small business start-ups.
“We moved here to Parkhill House to pursue our dreams. We had both been interested in rare breeds even before we were married. I was brought up in rural Gloucestershire and while I was still at school I helped out on a local fruit farm which had pigs and laying hens. From then on I always felt farming and rural life were really important,” said Mr Beard.
He has been able to develop these interests by becoming involved in the recently formed Appetite for Angus food group which aims to encourage consumption of local foods and also as an organiser of the Smallholder Festival which has been held in recent years at Lawrie and Symington’s Lanark or Forfar markets. This year’s event, like so many others, was held virtually, but still managed to host a trade hall, seminars and a video-based livestock showcase.
The Beards have brought their interest in rare breeds and local food together in their own business. They breed Oxford Sandy and Black pigs along with some Large Blacks and keep a flock of 25 Portland ewes with the meat sold either at Arbroath Farmers Market or through locally delivered meat boxes.
The slow maturing Portlands are an ancient Dorset breed typically producing mutton or hogget meat rather than lamb at up to three years of age and a carcase weight of 27kg to 30kg. Sales are built around the unique taste of the meat. They are in the RBST’s ’at risk’ category which means numbers UK wide are between 900 and 1,500.
“Popular with smallholders for grass-fed production, they produce one strong lamb each and can lamb any time of the year,” said Mr Beard.
He keeps up to eight Oxford Sandy and Black sows and favours them for their docility and ability to rear reasonable size litters. Although they are, like the Portland sheep, popular with smallholders they are still in the RBSTs ’at risk’ category. The Beard’s two Large Black sows are examples of an even rarer breed. Classified as ’endangered’ there are now reckoned to be only 100-200 left. This level of rarity makes it difficult to find genetic diversity meaning the Parkhill sows are without a boar at the moment. The use of AI is helping but much relies on breeders rotating boars to prevent in-breeding. A particular problem with traditional pig breeds can be the size of older boars which make then less suitable for breeding with smaller sows.
Mr Beard said: “There are challenges but there are also advantages with these traditional breeds in terms of lower inputs, less need for housing, easy births and good fertility, and the meat is fantastic. We keep our rare breeds because we like them but we also aim to make a profit.”
One of the issues, which is not exclusive to rare breed producers, is the lack of small scale abattoirs willing to undertake private kill. Mr Beard sees improving the situation as one of his priorities as an RBST vice-president. He has already been involved in a Government consultation into the provision of mobile abattoirs.
“Small and rare breed farmers often have to transport livestock long distances for slaughter which takes away from the local provenance a bit. Rare breed pigs can be big and hairy compared to modern breeds and that brings its own problems,” he said.
The main task however will be to keep a watchful eye on the status of rare breeds of livestock and poultry in Scotland.
“There are distinctly Scottish breeds of cattle and sheep on the RBST lists, but it is actually equines which are at the biggest risk, particularly the Eriskay pony. There are some still on their home island but we really need to make sure this wonderful traditional pack pony survives as a breed,” Mr Beard said.
“Among the cattle breeds, there are still very few original native-type Aberdeen-Angus. The Shetland breed is a little more numerous but still has minority status. These are easy calving, milky smaller cattle which could yet have a place in sustainable systems,” he added.
Scotland also has an incredible wealth of ancient sheep breeds. Many, including the Boreray, Soay, Castlemilk Moorit and North Ronaldsay feature on the RBSTs watchlist. “These are all part of the national heritage but who knows when the characteristics within these breeds might prove useful again,” added Mr Beard. One of his first tasks as RBST vice-president for Scotland will be to rearrange a conference – hopefully in March 2021.
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