Saturday 13 November 2010

The Shorefield Project - Highland beef

In my freezer right now is what remains of a quarter of a Highland beast.  We have eaten the rest.  Eating 'whole' animals if different to eating meat selected from a butcher's slab - you have to think about things a little more and eat the full range of cuts that you get from the animal - not just the bits that you are used to eating.  Last night we enjoyed a couple of sirloin steaks, tonight we will be sharing a big rolled brisket with friends, earlier in the week we had sausages with our pasta and cottage pie - all derived from the same animal.

Why am I telling you this?  Well, I have always been interested in farming and its effects on the natural world, and I am just about to embark on helping with an exciting project which should provide loads of interesting material for this blog, help with the management of a piece of spectacularly beautiful landscape - and result in food for our plates.

The plan is to help raise some Highland cattle - and watch what effect they have on the land and its wildlife while we are doing this.  George has a stretch of rough coastal land that has been left to its own devices for a few years and it needs grazing.  James is going to buy some young Highland bullocks and the plan is to bring them on until they are at their optimum condition, and then have them killed at the Islay Abattoir, butchered, and sold. 

I went up to visit James' current Highland herd, kept up above the village earlier this morning. We fed them some cake and then went down to see the Shorefield. It is a classic stretch of Islay coastline, rocky, boggy, rough and beautiful. It will need some work doing to its fencing and walls before the beasts can be introduced. Actually, we don't even have the beasts yet, but we will find some from somewhere... It may take a little while. This is Islay after all...

It should be fascinating - to watch how the land develops as things start to grow in the Spring.    Highlanders can be raised on much 'poorer' ground than conventional breeds, and the density of cattle will be low.  The grazing should have a very positive effect on the land and its biodiversity.

The 'natural' landscape of Islay is not 'natural' at all of course - it has been shaped by its relationship with man and his domestic animals for literally thousands of years.  Fundamentally, agriculture on Islay revolves around breeding cattle.  The Romans never conquered Scotland, they never settled on Islay, but ever since Roman times, and possibly before, cattle have been raised here and sent to the mainland to market.  Nothing much has changed really.  The 'black cattle' that the drovers send away back then were Highlanders too - the modern fashion for brown and cream Highland cattle is actually simply that - a fashion.  The breed is little changed.

So - this is the first of what I hope will be many posts about this project - and I hope you will continue to watch this space to see what happens next.

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