New Highland cattle chief says breed at ‘crossroads’

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The quality was high but numbers were low at the Highland Cattle Society’s 127th annual spring show and Ssale at Oban Livestock Centre on Sunday and Monday.

The Highland Cattle Society’s new team, freshly elected at its AGM the night before, says the breed is ‘at a crossroads’, and hopes to make it more commercially attractive to farmers.

The show was compered by Highland Cattle Society council member Angus MacKay of Tigh Cuileann, Achnagoul, by Inverary, who said: ‘It is going extremely well. This is by no means the biggest, but the quality has been really high. The best has been the number of overseas visitors, from Switzerland, Finland, Italy, Germany, and Ireland.’

But he added: ‘The total number of cattle was the lowest it has ever been.’

Gordon McConachie, the Highland Cattle Society’s new president elected on Saturday, said: ‘We are disappointed with the numbers. There are only 65 in total. It would be nice to see the numbers back to where they were – 100 animals would be nice to justify the sale and show.’

Mr McConachie, who farms the Culfoich Fold in Aberdeenshire, set out his priority for his two-year term. He said: ‘We are at a crossroads with the breed. We need to encourage more commercially minded farmers to look at it as a commercial animal rather than a picture postcard animal. Tradition does not pay the bills.

‘It is certainly not a critical point, but we need to move the breed forward. It will be a slow process. We are going to have to take the first steps to install confidence in buyers, making the animals more attractive commercially.

‘[The breed] is far more suited to the environment. They are kept outside on low-value forage. The continental breeds cannot forage on the same. It can survive harsh climates.’

Canadian Craig Cugnet, who breeds Highland cattle on his 30,000-acre farm in Saskatchewan, agreed, saying: ‘They are excellent. They will eat the weeds and the invasive plants before they touch the grass. They are far better stewards of the land.’

Mr Cugnet, on his second visit to Oban, appeared as hardy as the Highlanders themselves, wearing summer shorts as snowstorms drifted outside the pens. ‘They are one of the back-burner breeds,’ he said. ‘They are not where they should be. There were not many people under 65 at the AGM. Agriculture is the industry of the old and not the youth. We really have to focus on the next generation.’

The day’s Highland cattle judge Charlie MacLean said: ‘The quality of the breed has definitely improved. The top end of all the classes was exceptional. If they cannot find a stock bull here, they will not find one anywhere. It is a very underrated breed. If they put their minds together, I am sure they will succeed.’