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Eddie Gillanders: Don't be sheepish when it comes to standing up for lamb

By Eddie Gillanders

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WHY do so many people in Scotland turn up their noses when it comes to eating lamb?

A pair of cute lambs running on fresh spring pasture
A pair of cute lambs running on fresh spring pasture

There’s no doubt that cost, even in relation to beef, is a major factor, closely followed by wastage when you consider the eye of meat which is left on a lamb chop once you get rid of the bone and fat.

But it seems quite a lot of people have a perception that that they don’t actually like the taste of lamb – even some farmers who depend on sheep for living have been known to share the same sentiments.

The stigma goes back to the old days when mutton was a staple at a time when beef was relatively more expensive.

But the genuine product from a lamb slaughtered at under six months of age is a wholly different product offering a totally different eating experience.

Eating quality merged as a major point of discussion at an open day on “Sheep in the Uplands” hosted by the Macpherson-Grant family at Ballindalloch Home Farm on Speyside on Tuesday and organised by Scotland’s rural college, SRUC.

One speaker, Stuart Ashworth, former chief economist with red meat promotional body, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS), related being pleasantly surprised at a recent wedding to find the main course for the meal was a joint of roast lamb which he found delicious.

But one guest totally refused to eat it because she said she didn’t like lamb even although she had never tasted it and her views were probably tainted by the handed-down legacy of the mutton era.

Leading Ross-shire sheep farmer, Rod McKenzie, said he was confident there was a good future for the production of lamb in the uplands – particularly in the Highlands.

And he hit out at politicians who are bent on reducing cattle and sheep numbers for supposed environmental reasons when cattle and sheep were part of the solution and not the problem they were deemed to be.

“All they are interested in is chasing votes and getting on to the latest band-wagon rather than supporting the basic industries which supply the food we eat and keep people in rural areas,” he said.

But he also made the point that producers would have to be prepared to change to meet the requirements of the market in terms of the age and weight of lambs at slaughter and meeting consumer expectations of eating quality and especially consistency of eating quality.

He admitted that consistency was difficult to achieve with the national sheep flock in the UK comprising of more than 90 different breeds and around 110 breeds of sires used.

But this diversity offered the opportunity of supplying range of markets, as it was the only red meat untainted with religious prejudices, with the ethnic community proving an important sector of the market.

He was strongly supported by Kincardine sheep farmer, Peter Myles, chairman of the National Sheep Association in Scotland he urged sheep farmers to “nobble” politicians at the forthcoming local agricultural shows to press home the importance of maintaining sheep numbers and supporting the sheep industry.

SRUC beef and sheep specialist, Kirsten Williams, said there was a need to improve consistency in the industry with less than 50 per cent of lambs meeting specification when coming to market compared with over 90 per cent in New Zealand which was a major competitor in the UK market.

She also suggested more could be made of wool which was a low-value by-product of sheep production with returns failing to cover the cost of shearing and warned that any further decline in the sheep industry in Highland Scotland could have an adverse effect on the tourist industry.

The possibility of introducing children to lamb in school meals was suggested but was firmly ruled out on cost grounds because of the limited budget allowed for school meals.

But it was pointed out that QMS was making increased efforts to introduce lamb to the younger generation through visits to farmers and cookery demonstrations.

In summing up the discussion, Rod McKenzie returned to his main point of the importance of sheep continuing to have a major role as part of the Scottish Government’s biodiversity policy which seemed to be focused on reducing monoculture, cutting back deer numbers, growing more trees and the restoration of peatlands, all designed to reduce carbon emissions and facilitate the sequestration of carbon, rather than supporting the production of food.

But his main ire was directed at what he called the government’s pandering to the urban masses with an “ill-informed and vote catching policy” on predator.

He said this had seen the disappearance of all the species of birds which the rural population loved and had been brought up with and allowing sea eagles to continue attacking and carrying off lambs – not just new-born lambs but older lambs as well - in sheep flocks in the North-west of Scotland and elsewhere.

And ‘don’t get me started on seagulls’, was his parting shot to people.

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