Britain’s beef industry has experienced a sea change in recent years. When yield was all, our native breeds didn’t stand a chance beside meaty monsters from the Continent, breeds such as Simmentals and Limousins that could be fattened and brought to the table in roughly 20 months. But in the past 10 years, the tide has changed. Consumers have woken up to the value of traditionally produced beef from our hardy natives, and breeds such as the Red Ruby Devon, the Red Poll and the British White have all marched back into the farming mainstream.
Among them, Belted Galloways-Belties to the initiated-are experiencing one of the greatest surges in popularity. Ian Sutherland, secretary of The Belted Galloway Cattle Society, says: ‘I’m currently signing up, on average, three new members a week and registering about 1,200 Belties per year. This compares with the dark days after foot-and-mouth in 2001, when the breed was badly hit and registrations fell to about 200 a year.’
There’s no denying that the Belties’ markings have a large part to play in their popularity; with their black, dun or red coats and white belts, they are striking and instantly recognisable. It’s thought they first emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries as a result of a cross with a Dutch belted cow called a Lakenvelder and a Galloway, an ancient breed from south-west Scotland. There were four foundation herds, all originating from what is now Dumfries & Galloway, and, in 1921, they combined with 13 more Scottish herds and nine English ones to form the Dun and Belted Cattle Breeders’ Association. The society formed a successful export market and there are now herds all over the world.
In Britain, Belted Galloways can make a decorative addition to parklands and pony paddocks, but there is more to them than looks-and serious agriculturalists are firm on this point. John Carr-Ellison, who farms Belted Galloways and Galloways on his estate near Alnwick, has a clear message: ‘In an extensive system on the hard hill, they can’t be bettered.’ For farmers such as Mr Carr-Ellison, their ability to thrive in a harsh environment, without relying on expensive supplementary feeding, is their great appeal, but their looks are not insignificant either. Mr Carr-Ellison admits: ‘As they’re black and white, just like the Newcastle United colours, I had an idea that we could sell the skins in the club shop. Perhaps we could get Alan Shearer to wear one as a cloak?’
With or without Mr Shearer’s help, the message about Belted Galloways is spreading because of the quality of their meat, as well as their low-input credentials. Yorkshire farmer Tim Wilson is an evangelist for Britain’s native breeds. He owns The Ginger Pig, a string of butcher’s shops across London. ‘I’m a British-breed person. I believe they have a better flavour,’ he says, with a Yorkshire-man’s confidence, and he isn’t alone, because in foodie Meccas such as Borough Market, customers, including singer Lily Allen, go wild for his home-reared Belted Galloways. He chose the breed for its hardiness and flavour. ‘We did a taste test between a Belted Galloway and a Beef Shorthorn and the Beltie came off better each time.
The marbling and texture were wonderful and it was a lovely soft, brown colour.’ Among the restaurants he supplies is Hawksmoor, London’s top steak restaurant: ‘It has a tasting table where you can try different breeds; my Beltie beef is often there. There’s no escaping the fact that beef is better for growing longer.’ London’s leading restaurants are not the only places responding to the call for Beltie beef. In Cumbria, Jon and Caroline Watson are selling 60% of their Belted Galloway beef straight off the farm to restaurants in their area, and, to top it all, the cattle do a lot of their own marketing. ‘The farm is a popular spot for walkers and the cattle generate a lot of interest.’ This feeds into the Watsons’ business-they have an on-farm butchery and a website sending Belted Galloway beef throughout Britain (www.yewtree-farm.com).
Mrs Watson has a good argument in favour of Beltie beef: ‘The cost is higher than you might find in the supermarket because our beef takes twice as long to produce. Every animal is reared for nearly three years, so it comes at a premium, with the added benefits of the meat being lower in saturated fat, sustainable and low carbon compared with that of a corn-fed animal. We feel our cattle have a positive impact on the environment because they do a good job of keeping the heather down.’
It’s a win-win situation for farmer and consumer because Belties are low-maintenance.
Mr and Mrs Watson’s herd of 30 breeding cattle live out all year and winter on Holme Fell, which is craggy and exposed with relatively poor grazing. ‘At first, we were very nervous about leaving them out all winter, but they came back down from the fell and calved outdoors in great condition. They make great mothers and we’ve only had to calve one since we’ve had them.’
The breed is doing a good job of populating the South as well. At Widecombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, the Coaker family has farmed Belted Galloways since the 1980s (www.dartmoorbeltedgalloways.co.uk). Its Wide-combe herd is currently comprised of 50 pedigree breeding cows. Of course, the Belted Galloway’s suitability for upland farms is one of the great selling points for farmers such as the Coakers, whose cattle graze at about 1,400ft, but they had another good reason for choosing them. Mr Coaker explains: ‘There is a huge network of roads through Dartmoor and, occasionally, a Black Galloway would get hit by a car; if they didn’t die, they would probably be seriously injured. The Belties are that much more visible.’
The Coakers send all their steers to a local abattoir and sell them locally. ‘We started selling privately five years ago, and now, we’ve got much busier and all our Belties leave the farm that way,’ says Mr Coaker. One criticism from those who favour Continental breeds has been the size of a native-breed carcass-they’re small in comparison. Mr Coaker sees this as a bonus: ‘Our Belted Galloway beef is more attractive to the modern butcher because most families these days want a small joint that will feed the family on a Sunday. They don’t have time to cook with leftovers in the week.’
Although Belties have spread far and wide, the majority of Britain’s Belted Galloways can still be found in Dumfries & Galloway, and the Mochrum herd, based near Port William, is one of the oldest and most influential. Established in 1890 by the 5th Marquess of Bute, the herd was developed by his son Lord David Stuart, and carried on after his death by his daughter, Flora, who was also an authority on the breed. The herd currently consists of 100 breeding cows and the good work is continuing in the hands of Flora’s cousin, David Bertie. ‘We’re very keen to help people to get started,’ he says. And how delighted the Stuarts would be to know how popular Belties have become-watch out for a herd coming to a field near you.
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