Scotland is a big country. Some say it is the biggest wee country in the world. Many is the time when visitors have called us having crossed the border at Gretna, saying “We’ll be there soon”. To which the response is always “see you in a few hours then!”. And even when the journey looks relatively close on the map, the reality is often different – having booked a visit to a farm in Fife, a colleague asked if we could nip up to Grantown and back before moving on – I had to explain the minimum 7 hour round trip this would entail.

We were delighted when RBST decided to create a dedicated Scottish approach – the RBST Scotland Forum, which in part is a recognition of the fact that we have devolved agricultural policy but was mainly about the fact that members of RBST based in Scotland come from far and wide, but that our outlook, challenges and opportunities have many similarities. One of the first outcomes from the Scotland Forum was to reschedule the conference that we had created last year but had to postpone. So, the 2021 RBST Scotland Conference will run on the 31st March, and it is titled “Back to the Future” bringing together speakers and audiences from across Scotland (and probably a bit beyond).

This big country of ours holds a lot of surprises for fans of rare and native breeds of livestock. There are “hot spots” of rare breeds across the country and increasingly, the sight of native breeds grazing the land or turning up at shows (when we can get back to holding them). At the Angus show three years ago, it was fantastic to see native breed goat classes, at which a number of breeders were showing their Bagot goats alongside some of the more typical dairy breeds. I am looking forward to the time when the newly watchlisted old English Goat will get a look in, as I know there are some keepers in Perthshire who work to promote these stately goats. Of course, these are not native Scottish Breeds, and the same is unfortunately true of pigs. The Grice, which was also known as the Highland or Hebridean pig died out nearly a 100 years ago – its apparent lack of domesticity being a major factor, but who knows it may very well have shared some common ancestry with the Wild Boar now found in places like the Forest of Dean. It certainly had some similarities in appearance. That is not to say that native pig breeds are not found in the big country; most of the Watchlist breeds now have a home here. We have worked with schools to introduce them to the Oxford Sandy & Black, and then, just when you think you know all the pig breeders, along will come someone with a Middle White herd, or a Lop, or a Large Black Boar.

Scotland is the birthplace of the “great horse” the majestic Clydesdale, as well as the workhorses that literally meant survival to highland and island communities – the Highland Pony, the Eriskay Pony and the small but feisty Shetland. The Highland Pony is being used today for conservation grazing adding another string to its bow. The islands of Shetland have also given us their ubiquitous poultry – ducks and geese, but many a poultry enthusiast will talk of the Scots Grey and the Dumpy, both breeds with a strong following across the land.

In terms of Native cattle, Scotland is a bit of a market leader. It is the birthplace of the Aberdeen Angus, for a long time the beef animal of choice around the world, and it is also the place where one of the biggest herds of the original population Aberdeen Angus can be found. Although not native to Scotland, the Lincoln Red is now building a stronghold on the exposed east coast of Fife where two commercial breeders are between them ensuring that this breed, in its original and modern form, thrives and prospers. The smallholders “kye”, the Shetland, has breeders across the country, and of course the Highland which is much beloved for its tourism benefits is also producing beef which is regularly seen on the plates of London restaurants. Our climate, our ground, and our environment all work together to make this big country an ideal one for high quality, grass fed beef production.

If our big country is a leader in cattle, it is a colossus in sheep! From the Highlands to Lowlands, sheep of all breeds can be seen far and wide. At the Scottish Smallholder Festival a few years ago, we had 22 different breeds of pure bred sheep in the classes. From Shetlands with their different colours and their history going back to the Iron Age, through to the Border Leicester, the “great improver” that came on to the Watchlist a few years ago. But this big country still has the capacity to surprise – not 10 miles away from me, I came across a closed herd of Soay sheep living on the cliffs in a site of special scientific interest. The only way in and out is by boat, and the yearly cull is a challenge to say the least, but the meat is sensational (apparently – it is in very short supply).

Chefs across Scotland are using Mutton regularly now, having seen the taste benefits but also understanding the sustainable credentials our native breeds hold. We are small scale, but we know we can sell our Portland mutton without any difficulty, but there are bigger farmers who are making a real name for themselves with for example, Hebridean mutton.

But there is another factor. Scotland wants to be a leader in the race to net zero. Towards the end of this year, Glasgow will host COP26 – possibly the most important event in the world. I have often said that the answer to many of the questions about how we make livestock farming fit for a net zero world is to go ‘back to the future’. Our native breeds were born to be here, they evolved to be part of our landscape. They convert our native vegetation into meat, milk, eggs, wool, and other products with a myriad of applications. And they do so whilst enhancing our biodiversity and replenishing our soil as well as our health and well-being. As rare breed keepers know, there is nothing better for the soul than the contented sound of farm livestock doing what they do best – eating!

So, the report card on native breeds is not bad for the biggest wee country in the world, but we are just at the start. Don’t take my word for it, come along to the RBST Scotland conference on the 31st March and hear from people involved in production, the environment, food and culture. You can register here: