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The Great Outdoors: How a bygone, extremely rare and overlooked breed of Galloways could be future of farming in Scotland

© SYSTEMGalloway cattle.
Galloway cattle.

It’s now more than 20 years since I met the late Flora Stuart of the Old Place of Mochrum, in Wigtownshire. As a passionate ambassador for Galloway cattle, she left an extraordinary legacy.

Her family had always had a great interest in and loyalty to the breed – her father, Lord David Stuart, son of the Fourth Marquis of Bute, wrote An Illustrated History of the Belted Galloway.

Initially recorded in the Black Poll Register with the Aberdeen Angus, the Galloway’s separate breed society formed a herdbook – an official record of individuals and pedigrees of a recognised breed – in 1877.

Though the two breeds had similar characteristics, they followed very different paths.

The Aberdeen Angus is a swiftly maturing beast that thrives under intensive conditions, while the Galloway is a perfect hill cow that can exist on impoverished ground and produces a calf on a low-maintenance ration.

With its dense double-layered coat of curly hair, this is an animal that can tolerate the worst of the Scottish climate.

The famous Belted Galloway is formally recognised as a sub-species of this, with a separate breed society and a herdbook that began registering animals in 1922.

Though the Beltie has essentially the same origins as the Galloway, an infusion of blood from sheeted Dutch cattle in the 17th Century is thought to be the reason for this distinctive marking. Belties may be black, red or dun, while white Galloways have black etched around their eyes and ears, as well as a black nose.

But there is yet another Galloway – the extremely rare and previously overlooked riggit.

It has a dark or red ground colour and a white line and greyish markings down its back. Lack of uniformity had made breeders remove these so-called throwbacks from their herds, and it had been presumed extinct. When one of Flora Stuart’s white cows produced a beautifully marked riggit bull, and several other cows had riggits too, however, she restored them as another valuable sub-species. It is thanks to her dedication that the riggit survives today.

The Riggit Galloway Cattle Society, founded in 2007, promotes them as “an archaic strain of Galloway with a bright future – that tastes like beef used to taste”.

In Patrick Laurie, a Galloway farmer in his mid-30s, the riggit has found another staunch supporter. Having recently read his book, Native – Life in a Vanishing Landscape, I was eager to meet him.

I catch up with Patrick at Laurieston, before we take to a track travelling into the heart of Galloway. Patrick is wise beyond his years and has a dedication to not only the riggit, but the wildly rugged landscapes of his homeland.

His bullocks are contentedly grazing an extensive area of extremely boggy ground.

Hidden in tawny grasses and heather, when he calls they emerge and rampage towards us – bovine teenagers accompanied by a heady scent of crushed bog myrtle.

They are a breathtaking sight in this rough landscape, providing the perfect advert for native breeds at one with their true habitat.

“I wanted Galloways because they had always been in my family.” Patrick says. “Riggits are unusual and rare, so I could be true to the tradition while having something uniquely mine.

“They are old-fashioned, full of personality and character, and each is unique. They are also thrifty and cheap to maintain over winter.”

As the young cattle jostle forward to the proffered food, their varied colouration mirrors the environment.

“Riggits may pop up in herds of black or white Galloways, but it’s something you can’t guarantee which makes it exciting at calving time. It’s essential to keep native breeds going. Farming has focused on simplification over the last 50 years. Native breeds buck that trend and deserve to be cherished.

“Cattle have been integral to Galloway’s history for centuries and tell us much about who we are as a distinct community and culture. There is a strong connection to heritage and tradition too.”

Patrick, whose first book was a monograph of the black grouse, is also an accomplished artist.

As an active member of the Nature-Friendly Farming Network, he carries out freelance advisory work on conservation and farming too, while endeavouring to restore habitat for the diminishing curlews, other waders and the black grouse.

“Cattle graze hill pastures where black grouse and curlews live. That connection is complex and also linked to dung and vegetation management.

“Galloway was badly hit by foot and mouth disease in 2001, and many hill cattle were destroyed. In the aftermath, populations of curlews and black grouse crashed. We are still trying to restore the damage.”

He pours more feed on the ground, ignoring the shoving of his eager beasts.

“Subsequently there has been a loss of hedgerows and field margins normally rich with wildflowers, invertebrates and small mammals.

“A shocking 98% of traditional hay meadows, lush with wildflowers for pollinators, have been lost and in their place fast growing, heavy cropping grasses are treated with pesticides and artificial fertiliser for many silage cuts, chopped by gigantic destructive machinery.

“Far fewer farmers keep our diminutive native breeds and instead the fashion is for vast swift-maturing continental beasts that demand huge amounts of fodder.

“As they become financially squeezed, who can blame farmers for struggling to keep pace with modern trends?

“It’s encouraging to meet people who are as passionate about cooking and eating beef as I am about growing and breeding it, and this is where there may be a return to our native breeds. Supermarkets are somewhat to blame for severing the connection between consumers and producers. It would be great to reverse this.

“Though some of the best food I have had recently was plant-based, and I understand veganism, I’d like to see a focus on less but better meat. As a society, we eat a lot of meat, but it’s not always good stuff.

“I believe a more sustainable diet can include meat now and again, providing that it’s top-notch and produced locally by people who are passionate about what they’re doing.

“I think many farmers are aware that things are changing. When it comes to hill ground and climate change, there is now an opportunity to do things better for nature.

“Hill cattle, and Galloways in particular, might be part of the answer, but there are so many things farmers can do to combat biodiversity loss. I firmly believe that farmers are not the problem, but part of the answer.”

There is great wisdom in the words from Patrick’s book, Native – “We can never measure the loss of old hill cows. We’re only just beginning to see that our trusty old natives called for a kind of farming which improved everything it touched.”

“Did you ever met Flora Stuart?” I ask.

“No, sadly, I never did.”

More’s the pity, for in Patrick she would have found the ultimate kindred spirit, a man who is helping keep the glorious rare Riggit Galloway firmly on the map.