FORMER vice-president of
the Smithfield Club
Ben Coutts continues his
two-part series on the last
century of the Aberdeen
Angus with a look at the
years 1950 to 1999. The
first part appeared in FW
Oct 29 p 85
THE end of the Second World War and food rationing made the people of Britain realise what they owed to their farming community. The result was that farmers, including rearers of beef cattle, were appreciated as never before or since.
Before the war, thanks to our colonies and dominions, we imported cheap food. Today, too, with the ease of global transport, we can import any food we need – including beef – from countries that can product it much more cheaply than we can.
Back in the 1950s, Britain was the stud farm of the world and beef breeders world-wide flocked to Hereford then to Perth in the beginning of February. Perth bull sales were started in 1865 when 72 AA bulls averaged £21 14s 3d with a top of £45.
These sales were conducted by McDonald Fraser & Co, which eventually became United Auctions and had to move out of Caledonian Road Mart with its cobbled street (see photograph).
How I wish more bulls today were paraded on that cobbled street – which is now tarmac – as half of the bulls today of all breeds cannot walk. I had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Lovat Fraser and his son Roley, who sold so many high-priced bulls at Perth in the heady days of the 50s and 60s.
Look at the photo of the crowded sale ring from 1960 – and there were more people outside the ring than in. The bull being sold is no 939 from the Gaidrew herd. This herds influence was much sought after and had in it the blood of Keystone of Dunira.
Keystone was bought for 58gns by my old boss, Duncan Stewart of Millhills, to export in 1940 but failed the necessary tests and went to Gaidrew. During the same period the famous Newhouse herd owned by the master-breeder Bob Adam averaged £1459 10s for 5 bulls by Emperor of Derculich. Sadly those master-breeders were to do the breed more harm than good as the breed lost its size and scale.
Back in the 50s, as now, all beef breeds producing bulls for sale at Perth had quite a number of breeders who did not depend on their cattle for their livelihood but were attracted to the breed that was in fashion at the time. This meant they always had to – and still have to – depend on first class cattleman, and in the 50s and 60s the AA had some of the tops, names like Rugg, Kindness, Edwards, Bissetts, Ogg, Denny, McRobb etc.
Even now we have in the breed dedicated herdsmen such as Donald, Cormacks, Smiths, McNeish, McCartneys and others. The breed owes a tremendous lot to their dedication and it was not their fault that the breed went into decline as it did. When one considers that in 1960 there were over 1000 Angus cattle for sale, of which 987 were bulls and 197 heifers, while in 1987 there was a mere 41 sold, what a come down!
Even in the 1960s there were some amazing prices made. In 1960 Newhouse Jubilee Eric made 27,000gns. In 61 Everil of Wandel made 27,000gns, in 1962 Jumbo of Candacraig 33,000gns and of course in 1963 Evulse of Lindertis, the world record for a beef bull of 60,000gns.
Then came the downward slide, which is shown in the herd book registrations. There were 9384 in 1958 and less than half that 30 years later – 4400. By 1971 some breeders were getting worried about the lack of size in the breed and led by the late John Graham, went to Canada and imported some females. Many have since followed his example.
Some have done well and some not so well. I for one was a doubter and bought a bull from Ireland, Drumdeevin Jewel, with all the scale, length, fleshing qualities and breed character that I felt the breed had lost in those heady years of the 1950s and 1960s. How I wish I had his get now, when the breed are on the up and up once more with just the type of cattle he left.
But all was not gloom and doom in the 1970s. In 1977, there was an AA World Forum at Aviemore in Scotland, one of the traditional centres of the breed, which I am proud to say as I had a hand in organising. It was proclaimed by Argentineans, Brazilians, Canadians, Americans and New Zealanders alike as the best thing to help restore the image of the breed. The latter had become slightly tarnished by the huge prices in the 1950s and 1960s, which had done nothing for the Scottish producers.
In 1974 two imported Charolais bulls were sold in the Isle of Man and that autumn four were sold by McDonald Fraser in Perth. I believe there could be 400 for sale this 1999 autumn. This imported breed, which British stockmen have improved, has been transformed from one that used to pull a plough into a first-class, beef-producing breed with the size that the AA had lost. As always, payment is by weight.
The name Aberdeen Angus has always been associated with quality, but sadly all too many butchers and restaurants used the name but not the meat from an AA cross or pure AA animal. In the 1970s, on behalf of the Society I tried to take a butchers shop to court as they called themselves AA butchers.
Knowing there were so few Angus bulls being sold in that period, it was impossible for them to be selling nothing but AA beef. However, the late Sir Nicholas Fairburn MP, QC, who was my MP, looked into the case and said we had not a hope of winning as the shop occasionally bought an AA cross carcass.
This has all been changed and the Society, through its new chief executive, Ron McHattie, has put in motion a Certified Brand for the breed. The success of this scheme is unquestionable. In less than three years the scheme has achieved a throughput of over 10,000 cattle a year and there are now over 900 farmers participating, all enjoying an enhanced price for their primestock. There are nine outlets through which they can market them for this enhanced price – so badly needed these days.
As I write the breed is on the up and up once more, with a fantastic rise in calf registrations. In 1986 there were 2609 and in 1998 there were 8277! The membership in those years was 993 in 1986 and 1900 in 1998 and I understand they are about to advance dramatically in 1999. As an oldie who in his farming years stood by our native breeds of Shorthorn and Highland cross cows and never used Continental cattle, I am thrilled with the resurgence of the breed.
What does sadden me is those great stockmen who were small farmers. They brought out their bulls themselves for sales, knew their pedigrees and were great judges of stock but had to give up their pedigree cattle in the years of the decline of the breed. When I was Chairman of the Grantown-on-Spey Show and bred the Smithfield Show champion in 1954, there were at least 20, if not more, small AA herds in the Show area, which stretched from Laggan at the head of the Spey to Aberlour which housed the famous Kinermony herd.
Now only one, Ballindalloch, survives. That area produced not only good cattle but also good cattlemen. I wonder where the latter are to be bred in this tractor and computer-based age?