The launch of the new Food Tourism Strategy Board is a creative approach by the Scottish Government and an already dynamic industry, combining the lucrative tourism and hospitality sector with a truth which unites us, tourist and local alike: we all need to eat.
Scotland’s and Orkney’s name for quality is good for business.
Money for a marketing campaign promoting Scotch Lambs by Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) is more evidence of the Scottish Government’s commitment to our farmers. It is an excellent way to enhance awareness of a local, sustainable, free-range food source. However, several of Scotland’s iconic sheep breeds which are the foundation of some of our more fragile ‘Protected Names’ are threatened with losing their hard-won status owing to a lack of infrastructure essential to keeping the crucial ‘Terroir’ factor, the connection between the product and the land on which it is reared or grown.
The Keep Scotland the Brand campaign has been contacted by farmers, crofters, and smallholders who are concerned that this traditional way of life could disappear. A heritage built on centuries of culture, which shapes our distinctive landscape, our communities and underpins not only our economy but the foods and flavours on our plates.
Orkney Lamb is one example. It has ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ (PDO) status, an even more localised and specialist European Union protection than the better-known regional version, Protected Designation of Origin(PGI). There are several important criteria which must be met before meat can be awarded – and keep – the valuable PDO status. Among them is the requirement for the animal to have been raised in the area, another is for it to be slaughtered in the locale. Since Kirkwall’s abattoir at Hatston was closed, farmers in Orkney face losing the cachet associated with their PDO. Worse, for farmers in North Ronaldsay with their unique and ancient breed of sheep, the very future of one of Scotland’s oldest and most distinctive heritage breeds could vanish and with it a way of life which has sustained this tiny island community for centuries. (http://www.thescottishfarmer.co.uk/news/15897628.Scotland__39_s_niche_meat_producers_work_in_an___39_abattoir_desert__39_/)
There could be an irretrievable loss of Scotland’s heritage breeds, primitive sheep with sophisticated and distinct qualities which have been a feature of Scottish life for many centuries. The Shetland sheep is so unique even its wool has PGI status and is a feature in traditional Shetland and Fair Isle knitwear. The Hebridean, Soay and Boreray have underpinned survival in Western Isles for multitudes of generations. The North Ronaldsay sheep spends its life grazing on the rocky seashore. This diet, rich in seaweed, has seen evolution step in to ensure the hardy little sheep extract the nutrients they need while remaining unaffected by the high levels of salt they consume. This diet imparts a distinctive flavour to the meat which is highly-prized by epicureans around the world. An application for PGI for North Ronaldsay mutton currently is making its way through the bureaucratic processes. There is a sad truth facing many farmers in Orkney: the lack of local abattoir provision could mean farmers no longer benefit from the prized designation and the premium payments that brings, meaning their farms and woollens businesses could cease to be sustainable.
Orkney farmer and breeder of Boreray sheep, Jane Cooper says, “The Boreray sheep in Orkney are now the only remaining sheep from the original Assynt flock and have been recognised as unique by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Through work in Orkney, the breed has now moved from ‘Critical’ status to ‘Endangered’. It was voted ‘favourite’ in the Scottish Breeds Mutton Tasting in Edinburgh last year. The closure of the abattoir in Orkney earlier this year could be catastrophic for many farmers, communities, and the future of our heritage breeds, brand, and traditions looks very bleak if no solution is found. Our PDO was crucial to ensuring a sustainable market”.
‘Give us the infrastructure and we’ll do our best to contribute positively to Scotland’s economy, sharing Scotland’s living heritage with tourists from around the world. We are desperate. This really is a crisis point for our communities,” she added.
A huge problem facing many farmers, crofters, and the often-forgotten smallholders is that Scotland is losing its slaughterhouses at an alarming rate. In 2008, there were 38 abattoirs and 83 cutting plants around Scotland. Crucially, the facilities were well-distributed around the Scottish mainland and many of the island communities were well-served. (https://www.gov.scot/Publications/2008/06/19154131/16)
According to QMS, “Twenty-four licensed red meat abattoirs operated in Scotland during 2015 and submitted levy returns to QMS – one more than in 2014. Of this total, 20 sites processed cattle, 19 processed sheep (18 in 2014), and 15 processed pigs.” The closure of the Orkney abattoir early in 2018 was met with dismay. (http://www.qmscotland.co.uk/sites/default/files/red_meat_industry_profile_2016.pdf)
Those slaughterhouses which remain open are, reportedly, less inclined to take livestock from smallholders only looking to butcher one or two animals, preferring to deal with bigger customers. The transport of animals is carefully regulated to ensure the wellbeing of the creatures is a priority. However, it is indisputable that animals are generally less stressed when moved as part of their usual peer group and travel time kept as short as is possible. North Ronaldsay sheep, for example, need significant recovery time between travel and slaughter. One recent voyage saw the livestock rested for one week before they could be processed.
There are several slaughterhouse and processing models which could work in rural and outlying communities. These include micro-abattoirs and travelling slaughterhouses. Facilities providing for small communities would ensure the future of local producers, increase local employment and guarantee the continuance of Scotland’s high value name for premium quality artisanal produce.
Rosemary Champion, Chair of Smallholding Scotland says, “Abattoirs and access to them is the number one issue raised by our members as being of concern to them. Many smallholders are focussed on producing local food for local people and having access to a local, high welfare slaughter facility is key for them.”
Richard Briggs is the farmer who helped successfully shepherd Shetland Sheep through the complex PDO application. He has farms in Shetland and East Lothian. He says, “While those behind Scottish marketing and funding are unwilling to acknowledge that artisanal production of heritage sheep breeds produce ‘malt quality’ sheep meat with a variety of complex and delicious flavours to explore and discover, we have an up-hill struggle.”
Vice Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Yvonne White says, “We support the provision of micro-abattoirs as a means of farmers realising the maximum possible financial reward for their livestock. Local brands of quality meat products can be developed and promoted, helping to ensure the future sustainability of crofting and rural communities.”
The Keep Scotland the Brand campaign founder, Ruth Watson says: “Living and working in Orkney and Shetland showed me how resilient, determined, and hard-working folk in our farming communities are. As a vegetarian, I often have argued for abattoirs and processing plants to be maintained in local communities. The reality is, we have a thriving livestock and meat industry. Animal welfare standards on Scotland’s farms have a deservedly high reputation with livestock often living a good life on land in remote and rugged landscapes. Many years ago, when working in Orkney, I was taken on a tour of the Kirkwall abattoir. I was impressed by the facilities which were designed to make the process of slaughter as quick and compassionate as it could be. I think that is the least we can offer the creatures which provide food for so many – a death which is as fast and free of fear or pain as it can be. What I witnessed in Kirkwall’s slaughterhouse convinced me local facilities are not only crucial to the economy, to the brand identity of artisan produce, but for the end-of-life experience for the creature being slaughtered”.
“I urge the Scottish Government and the food industry to look at the business model of abattoirs and processing plants not just in terms of profits ‘at the door’ but to develop a fiscally-sound model which takes into account the economic benefits to communities as a whole: from the viability of schools because families have work which keeps them in the area, to the tourists who enjoy visiting thriving and diverse communities rather than glorified retirement villages, to the premium value which accrues when iconic and creative local produce is available both at home and around the world.
“We all have to eat. When we do, we have a farmer to thank for it. Local provenance is good for global sales. It pays to put the infrastructure in place which means we can ‘keep Scotland the Brand’.”