50 years of change

29 October 1999

50 years of change

for a famous breed

In the first part of his two-part

look at the last 100 years of

the Aberdeen Angus, ex vice-

president of the Smithfield

Club Ben Coutts looks at

how the breed changed

I SUPPOSE, to the average reader, 1963 would be the high tide year in the ebb and flow of fortunes for the Aberdeen Angus. Lindertis Evusle was sold for a world record price of 60,000gns – what is that worth today?

Sadly, that was the beginning of the downward slide, because the breeders had been catering for the overseas demand for small, thickset animals (see photo of Evulse). The result was that home commercial breeders, who had attended the Perth bull sales in droves in the 40s, 50s and early 60s, disappeared like snow off a stone wall dyke.

One commercial farmer said to me that the bull he bought was "that small he couldna bull a coo" and he had to dig a hole for the cows hind feet. The fact that Evulse did not leave a calf did not exactly help the breeds image.

This was the scene, then, when licences were issued for the importation of the Charolais and Simmental, which had the size and whose suckled calves – especially heifers – made a decent weight at six to nine months. Had the breeders stuck to the type of cattle the three pioneers of the breed, Watson of Keillor, McCombie of Tillyfour and Sir George McPherson-Grant of Ballindoch bred – big, thick, fleshy cattle – there would have been no need for imported French breeds.

Ageless Old granny

Pictured here is the ageless Old Granny, Watsons marvellous 35-year-old cow which produced 25 calves. She is No 1 in the Societys herd book, bred the bull "Strathmore" which was sold to Emperor Napoleon III, and an ox that won the Highland Show in 1843. The latter was bought by Albert, the Prince Consort, won the Smithfield Show, was destined to be slaughtered but licked Queen Victorias hand, so was bought back by the Queen and pensioned off at Windsor.

Later in 1868, after a visit to McCombies herd at Tillyfour, Queen Victoria founded a herd at Abergeldie Mains near Balmoral, and to this day the society enjoys royal patronage in the form of the Queen Mother. Not only is she the societys patron, but she is also a keen and knowledgeable breeder and keeps her herd at the Castle of Mey in one of the most windswept areas in these islands.

McCombies wins at the Paris Exhibition made the cattle-rearing countries of the world realise that this new breed was one to be reckoned with. In McCombies own words, "The English agriculturists always maintained that a Scot would never take first place in competition with Shorthorns, Herefords and Devons, but I have given them reason to change their minds."

He certainly did and beef-producing countries like the USA, Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa have huge numbers of pure Aberdeen Angus cattle run commercially – and not the Heinz 57 variety beef herd that we in this country have gone in for.

The forefathers of the AA breed were one-track-minded and determined to improve the breed, and through them the beef stocks in this country. McCombie died in 1880 and, according to the agricultural press of that period, at his sale "the largest assembly of agriculturalists ever seen around a sale ring in this country paid tribute to his work by making the average for his herd of 70 head a fantastic price of £48 1/6d". The top price of 275gns was for a Pride, a very popular breed family.

Breed progressed

So the breed progressed. As well as the Pride family, other famous names were Ballindalloch (the only herd of the original three still going strong) and the Ericas, which to this day are one of the great families in the breed. Some were exported to Missouri in the Southern USA as long ago as 1861.

As recently as 1959, Julie Erica, bred at Harvieston by the late J E Kerr, was regarded as the breeds best female and, looking at her photo, I can see why. The reason why those overseas beef-producing countries had huge herds of first-class AA cattle was because they selected all too many of the best Scottish cattle. In 1958-76, for instance, the USA imported 492 animals, Argentina imported 450, Canada 205, South Africa 65 and Russia 316.

Of those 316 exported to Russia, nothing has since been heard. Rory Edwards, who with his father Charlie managed the Kinermony herd for Sainsburys, was in charge of the initial 15 animals that were sent out to a big agricultural exhibition in Moscow. It was attended by Christopher Soames, then our Minister of Agriculture.

The whole operation took Rory eight weeks away from home. The snow and frost were still on the ground in Russia, the transport arrangements were chaotic and the bureaucracy horrific.

The vets were a pest and were continually jabbing the cattle with different serums while they were in their 30 days of quarantine, and Rory reckoned the food was monotonous and almost inedible. On the plus side, Kruschev spent three hours on the British stand and was particularly interested in the Aberdeen Angus cattle – hence the 300 more that followed. I would like to know what became of them!

These figures are all in the second half-century of the breeds history but they show that until the 1970s, all too many of the breeders were looking overseas for their markets instead of concentrating on their bread and butter home commercial beef farmer.

During the 1920s and 30s – as in all parts of farming – the breed suffered some casualties. But they always had more pedigree bull breeders than most breeds and a high proportion of working farmers who were willing to pull their belt in another notch to hold onto their beloved AA cattle.

The farmers in Speyside, a good example of such men, reaped the benefit of the fantastic prices in the 50s and 60s. In the annual AA breed review of 1950, it notes that at the Perth Bull Sales, "prices were excellent, especially for the man with the small herd and crossing bulls to sell".

Boy in the 20s

In the 1930s, many herds were owned by people who kept cattle rather than the cattle keeping them! As a boy in the late 20s, I worked on a farm in my holidays where the owner had made his money out of a string of butchers shops in Glasgow. He employed a first-class cattleman who went on to help the famous Newhouse herd fetch fantastic prices in the heady 1950s.

The memory dims after all those 70 years, but two things stick out. One was that all the cows were tied by the neck in a byre and a stinking billy-goat was tied at the end to ward off abortion. Secondly, all the bulls that were for sale had at least one foster cow.

The dedication of the cattlemen was immense and the influence they had on the breed was huge, as I will explain in the second half of my article.

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