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The Great Outdoors: Tales from five decades in farming

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Overlooking a glorious swathe of Perthshire hill, stippled yellow with gorse, a kestrel hangs in the breeze, as ewes and lambs relish the balmy spring sun.

“We love it here,” says auctioneer-turned-farmer David Leggat. “I have lots of experience selling livestock but less experience with practical farming.”

This, from a man revered throughout the agricultural world, is a priceless comment. It is typical, too, for he was ever modest about his achievements. Few know more about beasts and how to produce excellent thrifty stock than Leggat. He began his career as one of Scotland’s best-loved auctioneers in 1975 at MacDonald Fraser.

“My wife Vaila and I both love good stock, and we chose breeds that have excellent temperaments and would be good to work with – we have 25 beef shorthorn suckler cows and 250 Lairg-type North Country Cheviot and Jacob ewes.

“It’s important to have breeds that suit the ground, and these are perfect for our hill farm. I started as an office boy in Perth straight from school, worked with sheep, and eventually moved on to cattle.

“I was lucky because Perth had both Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn cattle sales.”

His tales from the early days are legendary, and he remembers a “bull in a china shop” story well.

In the 1950s, there was great excitement during the famous Perth Bull Sales when a feisty bull got loose from a train and was found by a policeman outside Watson’s china shop. Luckily, the policeman had the sense to tether it to a lamp post.

“As a young boy attending markets with my family, I became aware of the importance of livestock markets,” says Leggat. “They were places to find good stock and help farmers to achieve competitive prices.”

His work also took him to visit farmers all around the country, to offer advice and ensure stock came to market at the right time. From island crofters to hill shepherds and larger commercial enterprises at the forefront of modern livestock farming, Leggat’s excellent reputation followed him wherever he went.

During the devastating foot and mouth disease outbreak in 2001, Leggat and his United Auction colleagues gave unsurpassed support to those affected.

Their concerns for many of the finest cattle and sheep breeders in the country – who had become close friends and lost their life’s work in hours – meant that during the compulsory culls, they travelled long distances to be with the devastated breeders.

In 2016, after 42 years as the executive chairman of United Auctions, he retired. However, he retains close involvement with the company as an ambassador and consultant, and has since become chairman of the Royal Scottish Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RSABI).

The RSABI has come a long way since the idea was conceived 125 years ago to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. In 1897, agriculture was at a very low ebb. Hard times meant numerous farmers, their families and others working in the rural environment struggled for survival. The aim was to support those in greatest need.

As farming has progressed, farmers have had to change drastically and are under pressure to produce more and more from their land. Sometimes stretched way beyond their means and forced to borrow heavily, they can find themselves unable to repay debts.

Some have been forced to sell and give up the only way of life they know. So, like farmers, the RSABI has had to evolve significantly, to provide an even more crucial lifeline than ever before.

There has been a frightening rise in mental health issues in recent years. Many are complex but often revolve around bereavement, poverty issues, concerns about succession, more frequent occurrences of extreme, adverse weather, crop failure, stock loss and disease.

Then there is the astronomical cost of living, fertiliser, fuel and feedstuffs, to say nothing of personal issues and loneliness.

Farmers often feel isolated and engulfed by what seem like insurmountable problems. During the winter months, situations can escalate out of control, tragically leading to an increasing number of deaths by suicide.

As RSABI chairman, Leggat can understand the numerous issues faced by those working in the rural environment.

“In a world which is changing rapidly, the need for our services and support will increase,” he says. “Preparing and reacting to change will be even more important. We want everyone to know of our existence so we can help.

“We know how hard the winter months can be, and we encourage everyone in the agricultural industry to check in on each other and call RSABI if they are feeling low. We have professional staff who, with volunteers and qualified counsellors, do a wonderful job.”

The RSABI’s mission is to provide practical, emotional and financial support for those most in need. As a result, its work proves highly effective, and numerous individual stories relate to positive outcomes.

We chat as Leggat takes me around to see the beef shorthorn cows and calves. “We are very pleased because we are working hard to create good habitats for waders here on the farm.

“We grew kale last year, and it provided excellent habitat for them. I would go out with a torch in the dark in winter and see dozens of pairs of shining eyes from among the kale. Woodcock!”

The 125th anniversary of the RSABI is an important occasion as the need for help and support has risen dramatically. Farmers and those in the rural community need to be understood. With David Leggat as chairman, the charity could not have found a person who understands that need better.

“I never cease to be amazed at what individuals or groups will do to raise funds and awareness for RSABI,” he adds. “Awareness of our existence is so vital.”

I tell him that I think he is in his element and must find it very relaxing being in such a beautiful place with such excellent, healthy stock.

“Och, not sure about relaxing – there’s plenty to worry about when you have stock, you know!”