Island black gold

The Aberdeen Angus has made itself at home on Orkney

Some find it hard to believe that probably one of the finest beef producing areas of the British Isles is Orkney. Windswept and with few trees, these islands, only 17 miles from the Scottish mainland’s northernmost tip, are indeed home to superb beef animals. Though remote and often almost overlooked, the Orkneys grow superb grass. It was always said that the Shetlander was a fisherman who farmed, but that the Orcadian was a farmer who fished. Despite their proximity, the farmland of the two islands is very different. Orkney’s rich pastureland is ideal for beef, and though there are some sheep on the islands, it is cattle that are the mainstay. Though my main interest is native breeds, it is also hard not to be overawed by the magnificent continental animals seen all over Orkney. Orkney Gold is a label under which the island’s prime beef and other specialised local products are marketed. Many of the commercial herds are based on Aberdeen Angus cross Beef Shorthorn and then put to continental sires.

My inauguration into the world of Orkney beef was almost ten years ago when working on a book on Scotland’s native farm livestock. I wanted to include much about the people and the varied habitats, and to that end decided to visit well-known Aberdeen Angus breeder, Colin Davidson, not only because his story is an interesting one but also because it meant Orkney beef could be featured.

‘Orkney’s rich pastureland is ideal for beef’

Historic site

It was in 1974 that Colin first joined the Aberdeen Angus Society. From farming stock, his family’s tenanted farm at Bay of Skaill overlooks the 5000 year old Neolithic semi-subterranean village, Skara Brae. When I first met Colin, his reputation was growing fast. He had watched the ups and downs of one of the world’s most famous cattle breeds and had not liked the way many had become small and dumpy. He had always had his eye on the larger animals in Canada, where in his opinion many of our finest bloodlines had been exported. Though initially he had been unable to buy the style of beasts he revered, eventually, after a spell working away in Australia, he had returned to his native homeland cash in hand.








A convenient scratching post for one of the bulls.

And rather than buy a car, which he felt sure he would only wrap round one of Orkney’s stone strainer posts, he had invested in two cows of the Canadian type. These animals were to form the nucleus of a herd that has since evolved and is now at the forefront of Aberdeen Angus breeding in Britain today. In the time since I first met Colin, he has not only had a spell as President of the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society, but has also made an excellent name for himself breeding bulls for both the pedigree and commercial markets. He is highly progressive and was the first to try embryo transplants, and has also sold frozen embryos, and donated some to a major Aberdeen Angus research project.

He claims that he always likes to go his own way and has never used the popular bulls of the day, preferring to try other breeding – usually with outstanding results. He has had many show champions and top prices all around Scotland, and has always been to the fore at the famous Perth Bull Sales, now relocated to Stirling, with four champions, a couple of intermediate champions and several reserves. Colin has judged cattle up and down the country, and he feels that it is important to show their own cattle from time to time. Despite the difficulties of travel to and from the island, this ensures that their animals are kept firmly on the map. Showing is a vast amount of work for anyone, but when it also involves a wholly weather dependent ferry service, it can be doubly difficult. During his time as President of the Society, Colin spent much time travelling, and during this period the export ban following various livestock health scares was lifted – Skaill sent 10 heifers to Germany and there was further demand from other countries, including Romania. There were other opportunities while Colin was President of the Aberdeen Angus Cattle Society, including an impressive visit to Prince Charles’s beautiful estate, Highgrove, and a tour of the farm, and also a tour of the Castle of Mey in Caithness overlooking the Orkney Islands. One of Skaill’s bulls was bought for the Caithness herd. Breeding pedigree cattle has now become highly complex. Long gone are the days of choosing a bull and simply sticking him out with the cows.








Orkney’s rich grassland suits continental breeds too.

Pouring over pedigrees

Hours of pouring over pedigrees and studying bloodlines are vital if animals are able to compete and keep up with current demands. Then there is AI and embryo transplant. During a tour of the beasts in intermittent squalls coming straight in off the sea, we saw some impressive animals. Colin feels that a pretty head is very important and a cow must look truly feminine with large open ears, for without this she will never breed correctly. It is also vital for the animals to have good fleshing capabilities – a vital and distinctive trait of a classy Aberdeen Angus. The pure-bred animals now have to compete with the huge continentals – Charolais, Simmental and Limousin – and Colin is concerned that though he did not favour the trend for very small Aberdee Angus, neither does he like the way the breed in many cases seems to be getting too large.

Sometimes this leads to fertility issues; barrenness in the cows, and other concerns. In a windswept field overlooking Skara Brae, where a line of hardy tourists were time travelling, there was a field of young bulls. Their future may be a long ferry journey and a visit to the world’s top bull sales, and then maybe a life in the softer climes of Southern England. The weather was now atrocious, making up for the glorious summer, and hurling considerable abuse in our direction. The young bulls were unperturbed, one busily throwing up great clods of sand with his feet, as if warming up for a fight with a matador, and rubbing a noble head in a rabbit burrow. A new stock bull, Nightingale Proud Jake, has recently been acquired from Willy Roberts of Pershore in Worcestershire and is the hope for the herd’s next few generations. He was bought because Colin feels that he is of a similar type and style to his own animals and will bring in fresh bloodlines.

Colin’s wife Pam describes her husband as a walking Aberdeen Angus encyclopedia, and it is this knowledge that enables him to marry the right genes to produce a great result. His wit and humour is also never far from the surface and is shown with the comment he made to me when we first met, ‘Breeding cattle is like selling women’s clothes. There is no use coming in with last year’s lines this year.’ Colin Davidson may be in a remote location, but his ideas and achievements are very much to the forefront and his fame spreading far and wide, ensuring that the Aberdeen Angus, provider of the world’s most famous beef, is very much holding its own.

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