3 April 1998

Slow start,

The central role played by

Continental beef breeds in

the UK is now taken for

granted. But it wasnt

always so, as one

Northumberland breeder

explained to Claire Powell

THE Limousin and other Continental beef breeds which now dominate British beef production seem to have been here for ever. Not so. In fact 30 years ago, Northumberland farmer Seorus (G E) Robertson was trying to convince a sceptical Ministry of Agriculture to allow him to import the very first Limousin bulls into Britain from France to use in his large commercial herd of Irish-bred Hereford and Angus cross cows.

Seorus, along with several other Northumberland farmers, who between them had commercial herds totalling well into four figures, used to regularly travel to Aberdeen-Angus Society sales in Perth as well as Hereford Society sales in Edinburgh and Hereford to buy bulls.

"For many years we had used Hereford and Angus bulls," said Seorus, "but we were becoming fed up with the lack of size as well as fertility problems we experienced with some of the bulls we were buying," he added.

Seorus cousin and near neighbour, the late Bobby Robinson of Snipe House, had changed from Herefords and Anguses to Charolais bulls as his terminal sire breed in the early 1960s, shortly after the breed had been first imported in November 1961.

An article in farmers weekly, Nov 25, 1966, caught Seorus eye. It featured the Correze area in France and included a reference to the big well-muscled cattle which, since the war, had successfully developed their beef potential and were being exported to some of the major beef producing countries of South America.

The article explained that despite poor land and severe winters, calves from the Limousin cows (which lived outdoors all year) slaughtered at just under a year old, produced the much sought-after, premium-earning quality beef, veau de Lyon and veau de St Etienne.

The information in the article looked good to Seorus. Here were meaty, hardy, cattle with a premium paid on the end product, as well as being clearly good enough for South American ranchers to import.

Within the year Seorus and his wife, Eileen, had visited three Limousin herds in France and Seorus had applied to the UK Ministry of Agriculture to import bulls for commercial use.

This marked the beginning of a three-year tussle with a negative ministry, which Seorus was always confident he would win. He never considered the possibility of being defeated.

Discouraging remarks

Seorus recalled a meeting at MAFFs London Head Office in Jan 1969, where he and Peter Pitcher (now of the Cockleshell pedigree Limousin herd in Lincolnshire), were the only farmers among a team of five who were lobbying for the importation of Limousins. The other three people present were from AI centres.

"From the ministry side of the table came many discouraging remarks," says Seorus, brandishing a 29-year-old copy of the minutes of the meeting. They quote one ministry official expressing his view that "one disadvantage was the lack of milk in the (Limousin) females. Calves would need supplementary feeding by hand at two to three weeks. This would be a considerable drawback with a single-suckled herd". With pure Limousin cows now being run as commercial sucklers in some upland British herds, this criticism was, at the least, misguided.

Seorus and his colleagues were able to counter all negative arguments with facts and figures from France which eventually convinced the ministry to allow the first importation of Limousin cattle.

In Dec 1970 a shipment of 178 yearling pedigree Limousins (154 heifers and 24 bulls) and approximately 400 yearling Charolais arrived at Leith Docks just outside Edinburgh. The insurance value of the total shipment was £1.05m, making it the costliest load of cattle ever to have been imported into Britain.

It took more than three-and-a-half years from when Seorus had first read the article in farmers weekly to the first Limousins actually setting foot on British soil. Thanks to the routine vaccination of year-old cattle against foot and mouth in France, all the imported cattle had been selected as calves.

Thanks to the publicity attracted by the importation, speculators as well as genuine cattle breeders were drawn to these cattle. Ballots were held to try to ensure a fair method of allocating individual cattle to individual importers.

Some were retained as foundation breeding cattle for pedigree herds which still flourish today. Others were used as brood cows to produce UK-bred pedigree Limousins for eager-to-buy North American cattlemen who had difficulty importing direct from France.

Meaty calves

Seorus, however, was only interested in bulls to cross with his commercial cows to produce meaty calves with good eating quality. He had to use AI for the first couple of years, until buying his first pedigree Limousin bull in Oct 1974 for 1250gns.

Seorus is now retired, although he and Eileen still live on the farm and take an active interest in the 1000ha (2500-acre) mixed farming enterprise run by their sons, David and Iain.

A total of 13 Limousin bulls, easily one of the largest commercial Limousin teams in Britain, now deal with the demands of the Robertsons 400-plus suckler cows – mainly Limousin cross traditional British Friesian.

Over the years since Seorus bought the first bull, the Robertsons have spent more than £169,000 on 46 Limousin bulls, including the one-time breed record price holder Burton Normous bought at Carlisle in Oct 1974 for 5000gns. Yet despite at times out-bidding pedigree breeders, the Robertsons have never owned a pedigree female – their cattle enterprise has remained entirely commercial.

"When Dad was bidding for Normous," said David, "I whispered, steady, we can buy a tractor for that."

"Thats all very well," he replied, "but you cant bull cows with a tractor." By the time Id thought up a response, the bull was ours."

Limousin bulls replaced the Robertsons Angus and Hereford bulls decades ago. The cows too have changed, albeit more slowly; Limousin cross British Friesians have replaced the white-faced Hereford crosses and almost all the Black Irish cows.

Softy, a Black Irish in her very late teens, remains and lives in a shed not far from Davids home.

"I suspect she was reared as a pet in some old ladys back porch in Ireland," said David as a huge lick threatened to lift him off the ground. "Shes always been like this; theres absolutely no way I can send her to the burner."

Limousin bull, Springsett Jack amongst Limousin cross British Friesian cows and calves, with their three-quarter Limousin calves at foot at Shipley, one of the Robertson familys three units in Northumberland.

but then it took off…

The Robertson four – left to right: Iain, Seorus, Eileen and David, outside the Jubilee shed, constructed at Shipley in 1977, the year of the Queens Jubilee.

Hartside Blyth, rising 12 years old – one of the grand old gentlemen of the Robertsons team of 13 Limousin bulls.