They are among the most distinctive cattle known on our shores. Chris Berry meets Yorkshire’s Highland cattle farmers
Highland cattle may be classed as a rare breed, but in Yorkshire they have never been more popular. Hardy and low maintenance, they stand in fields throughout the winter, often bringing calls from the public, concerned they are not being cared for.
Keith Gascoigne runs the largest fold in the county, with over 250 Highlanders from his base at Holly Beck Farm in Flockton, near Wakefield but only a small proportion of them are based on his 30-acre home site.
“We are heavily involved with conservation grazing. That means that our cattle graze land elsewhere such as Yorkshire Sculpture Park at Bretton and the RSPB’s Fairburn Ings near Castleford. We started conservation grazing in 1998 and it has proved beneficial both to the land we graze and to ourselves as additional land is hard to come by and would be too expensive for us to then be able to make a living.’
“The Highlanders live off grass, scrub and minerals that we feed by the bucket. During the winter we’re not allowed to give the cattle on conservation land any supplementary feed unless conditions get desperate. That usually happens when the general public complain that they have seen that the cattle have nothing to eat. There’s really nothing wrong with them but we give the cattle something more as a public relations exercise rather than anything else. These animals are built to survive any conditions and they get it a lot worse up in Scotland where they have been bred for centuries.’
“Conservation grazing has helped us to expand and although we’ve had one or two difficulties this year with having to move stock due to flooding we haven’t lost any cattle. Fairburn Ings has flooded six or seven times. I’ve lost count now and we’ve had to move the cattle each time. Janet and I visit each site every week with our grandsons to check on the stock, but in the meantime each of the conservation grazing areas has a warden so we are notified if there is any problem.”
While the popularity of the breed has grown there are still few who farm them as a going concern. Keith started selling Highland beef at farmers’ markets back in 2000. He and his wife Janet now attend one every weekend under the name of Yorkshire Highlanders, in Leeds city centre, Roundhay Park, Oakwood or Manchester.
“The first question people always ask, whether they are seeing us for the first time at a market or they see us at shows is always ‘Oh, you can’t eat these.’ That’s because they are seen as nice to look at, but I always tell them that if they don’t eat them we won’t be able to keep them and they won’t be around any longer. The more Highland beef that is eaten, the more we will keep, that’s my philosophy.
“Everyone likes to see Highland cattle and I like them too. They are the breed that most people come and look at when the agricultural show season is in full swing, but it’s important that people understand they are a beef breed intended for meat and that they have to be commercially viable.”
Before starting with Highlanders Keith fattened commercial cattle and had a pedigree Charolais herd, but he was looking for something a little different.
“We’ve found that our customers keep coming back and that often they buy a range of cuts from fillet, rump and sirloin to brisket and whatever else. Once people try Highland beef they usually stick with it. The produce is the most natural beef around and when people ask what it is like I tell them it is an old traditional breed and tastes as good as it looks. They eat grass, they graze throughout the year and they are also slow to mature. Most Highland cattle that we have are killed out at three to three and a half years old.
“We’re now sending around 120 cattle a year to slaughter and we also buy new stock out of Scotland.”
Keith has some shed cover at Holly Beck but it is there mainly to help to keep the bloom on them before being sent away.
“We give them a little bit of corn and supplementary feed to keep the back fat on them before they are sent to the abattoir because we want the carcase to hang properly. They still don’t need to be inside or under cover.”
Competing at agricultural shows has become another part of the Yorkshire Highlanders’ marketing campaign. Keith is now ably supported at shows by his two grandsons Joseph and William. This year hasn’t been the best show season, with shows called off and classes cancelled at last minute, but he did manage two firsts at Penistone Show in September.
“There are a lot of people who buy a show winner thinking that it will breed a show winner, but that’s rarely the case. If this breeding job was easy we would all be millionaires but we’re not.
“My proudest moments in the show ring have been with a cow called Claire the First of Saljen. We took her to the Great Yorkshire Show three times and she was never beaten in her class. She also won at Emley Show and took the Supreme Interbreed title. We even beat Willie Seels with his Blonde!”
The funny side of showing
Keith remembers a time in the show ring at Pateley Bridge when things didn’t quite follow the form book. “Claire had won everywhere that year and we took her to Nidderdale Show and the judge placed her last! One of my fellow Highland cattle competitors asked why I was laughing even though Claire had been placed last. I just told him that I could laugh at the top or the bottom and that I couldn’t do anything about having an idiot judging!”