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  • Writer's pictureHighland Croft

How To Cook The Survival Soup

The weather up here in the hills can be pretty unforgiving: Relentless winds, sleet and rain, and this is just the summer ... Just kidding. But as I write this blog, a blizzard is blowing over the croft. The ground is over-saturated from the biblical amounts of rain we've had lately and new burns spring up everywhere and have partially turned our drive into a waterfall. At least the snow that fell during the last night has gone. Sadly, one of our older ewes didn't make it, we found her dead in the rushes this morning.

It's a harsh reminder to stick to our stocking policy of keeping sheep only to a certain age, after which they become too old to endure the harshness of our place. They might still do fine on a lower lying farm and have another few crops of lambs. But here, it's game over.

There are a lot of sheep breeds which might have a bigger carcass and thus bring in more money for their lambs - but their softness excludes them from being run on our croft. The Cheviot sheep has proved itself to be a hardy hill breed, perfectly suited to the Sutherland hills and there is a reason why the majority of farmers and crofters run them in the area. Personally I like throwing a few Shetlands and Hebrideans into the mix: They are tough, prolific, easy birthers and fierce, milky mothers. Their survival will is unparalleled and while a Suffolk might be a nice, big sheep, they would probably drop dead with shock by the mere sight of our fields and wouldn't even stick around to find out what the winter is like.

The recipe for survival up here is being small and hairy - or woolly - when it comes down to it. A big lamb doesn't make me any money when it's dead. I need hardy, little survivers that can mainly look after themselves. The same applies for our cattle. Compared to the big, fat dual purpose cows I am used to from Bavaria, our girls are shaggy dwarves. They are a cross between Highlanders - which give them their impressive coat and hardiness - and a Shorthorn bull, which puts a bit of meat on their bones. It's like cooking a soup: Striking the right balance between a surviver and something that makes money. Because sadly, there isn't much on a native breed, whether ovine or bovine: they are small and scruffy. What there is on them though is delicious, as the slow growing lamb or mutton and beef has accumulated a lot more flavour in it. We put a Cheviot tup over all our sheep, including the native breeds, as we find that works best for our place here. Even a few miles down the road might be different so it's important to know your land and its demands and adapt your breeding accordingly. From my time in New Zealand I remember how important it was for them to breed a resistancy against facial excema into their sheep, as the sun down there is unforgiving and skin cancer ripe amongst pink-skinned livestock. That's not so much a problem in our latitudes, but goes to show that farming and breeding focus vary greatly depending on where you are.

For various reasons we don't house any of our animals indoors, including the horses. So having resilient breeds is the basis for survival. Oftentimes I see lifestylers coming up from England with a flock of fancy looking sheep they have purchased down south only to see the animals quickly becoming utterly miserable as they are not suited to the wet, cold climate of the North. I have myself made the mistake with chickens in the past, where I get easily carried away by pretty looks and posh feathers, but then the poor creatures get a shock to the system upon arrival, especially when they've spent theit pampered lives in somebody's shed beforehand.

Funny enough, the same recipe to success that sees the animals through the hard times, seems euqally to apply to many of their tenders and people of the Highlands in general: Stocky, rough and hairy. If I tried to walk into the old shed of one of our cottage ruins upright, I would smack my jaw off - I'm 1,74m ... but then, I'm German and we tend to be a bit taller.

Until the Middle Ages, all domesticated livestock became progressively smaller, at a mindblowing speed. For once, when talking cows, smaller beasts were easier to handle than their wild forebears. Give me a Shorthorn over an Aurochs any day. Another reason is probably the tendency to breed only from youngstock and not let cows reach their full size. Only through selective breeding in the last few hundred years have different breeds developed more pronouncedly and gained in size again - however nowhere near the epic dimensions their ancestors of the magafauna would have once had. Bigger growth and faster maturing equals higher economic value, for sure. In prime farmland in a more pleasant climate, I'd roll with it, too. However, when farming marginal land in harsh climatic conditions, like we do, pint-sized with a thick coat on wins. It's the only way to do it at all.

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