By Elizabeth McQuillan
Domestic livestock and pets have been propagated and genetically fiddled with throughout the centuries in order to fulfil the criteria of us humans. Whether it’s line-breeding within a family – which is most definitely not encouraged within the human population – or crossbreeding, the aim is to produce the favoured characteristics,
The current trend is for farm animals that supply to supermarket requirements. We want Schwarzenegger cattle that carry a large bulk of muscle tissue or, instead, Dolly Parton cows to produce industrial quantities of milk. They may have a foul temperament and be prone to health issues, but these are of less consequence to the consumer.
According to the EU welfare people, the “high input-high output”, involving high-intensity farming, has emerged due to economic developments. And the cows must comply.
Average daily milk yield ranges between 20kg and 40kg per cow, and during this period the cows usually are milked twice a day in a milking parlour. On large farms, however, especially where there is an automatic milking system or a milk carousel, the cows are milked up to three times a day. On average, the cows spend up to three hours of their daily time budget in and around the milking process. This is an abnormal yield, and perhaps amounts to ten times the volume that would be produced if left to Mother Nature.
In the meantime, blastocysts have been grown in laboratory petri dishes, and one sickly cloned ewe produced (RIP Dolly) in order to perpetuate a single animal. As an aside – Dolly was named after the famous country and western singer due to being cloned from breast tissue.
This research has wider implications, and the prospect of cloning in the future makes Dr Frankenstein’s disavowed experiment seem pretty tame.
Before we tampered with our animals, and customised them, the small crofts and farms of Scotland had some hardy creatures which were built to be self-sufficient and able to survive with the minimum of fuss.
Each was expected to be an all-round performer. Every animal produced young in the natural way and at a natural rate, providing modest quantities of milk (while leaving plenty for the offspring) or eggs, and meat when the time came. The animals were handled regularly and lived in close proximity, so needed to be of a tractable temperament.
Championing our native breeds, let me introduce…
Poultry – the Scots Grey would be the chook most often found strutting around an old farmyard. An endangered species, it is a rather handsome sort, with barred or “cuckoo” black/grey plumage. These guys produce good meat, lay eggs year-round and are great at foraging for their own food. They even take themselves up into the trees to roost at night, so negating the need for novelty hen houses.
Another is the Scots Dumpy (possibly referred to in Gaelic as Coileachchime and Coileach degh sheinneadair). The name relates to their incredibly short legs and this could be advantageous in a bird that was not to go ranging very far. Legend has it that, due to their superior hearing, they were used as ambush alarms by the Celts and Picts.
Equine – The Eriskay pony lightened the burden for those living in the Western Isles, carrying heavy peat and seaweed in basketwork creels slung across their backs as well as harrowing, pulling carts and taking the children to school. Freed from the constraints of labour, they now make superb ponies for children, being docile and having a great jump. With fewer than 300 breeding females worldwide, these ponies could do with a little Scottish support.
Bovine – Shetland cattle have been ousted by market forces, but are superb all-rounders for the small-scale farm or smallholding. There are only 350 breeding females, which again makes them very rare. According to the Shetland Cattle Breeders Association: “Crofters in the Shetland Islands depended on this cow’s milk and beef for their very survival, and in the past it has worked in the field too. Due to the harsh environment of the Islands the Shetland cow has developed into a small, hardy animal, able to thrive on poor grazing, and with a high natural resistance to disease. For its owners to survive it had to be versatile – to produce a calf every year of its life, which often extended into its twenties.”
Ovine – The oldest sheep, and critically endangered, is the Boreray. These are the descendants of the domestic sheep which were kept by the St Kildans. When the inhabitants evacuated Hirta (the main island of St Kilda) in 1930, all their domestic stock was evacuated with them. Other breeds worth a mention are the seaweed-munching North Ronaldsay, Castlemilk Moorit and Soay.
Some of the original Scottish breeds are now extinct, but these Scottish rare breeds live on and could do with a resurgence in interest in their value, to prevent them heading the same way as the dodo.