Islay Farm Animals Present Day

The Farm Animals on Islay page has been split-up in two sections, a present day page, the one you are looking at, and a historical page.

Topping the grass at Loch GruinartIn the 18th century, Islay's landowners began creating the attractive and effective farming landscape which we see today. When the first Daniel Campbell of Shawfield assumed ownership of most of Islay in 1726, he had the lands and livestock surveyed, mapped and recorded, as well as the complicated business of reckoning land value and who the tenants and shared subtenants all were. Using this information, changes to the farms and to the established system of renting to tacksmen and tenants were started. Many small landholdings were made part of larger farms for more economical management. However, some farming families on small holdings were then displaced, either becoming labourers on the new larger farms or emigrating from Islay to the New World.

'Farming practices varied considerably from area to area in the century after 1750; the pace differed at which new techniques and crop rotations were adopted and adapted to local conditions. The type of farming which developed in a particular locality and the way in which farmers responded to available agricultural improvements must have depended to some extent on proximity to the growing urban markets. Supplies of commodities, such as livestock moved on the hoof, were brought from more distant supply areas' In this way the urban markets were linked with distant farming areas. (from The Cattle Trade and Agrarian Change by J. Blackman in The Agricultural History Review)

The Cattle on Islay - 'Improved' Beef breeds

Aberdeen Angus
Aberdeen Angus CowsAberdeen Angus beef cattle were among the first of the 'improved' breeds of cattle to reach Islay in the early 19th century, and are again a popular breed with Islay's farmers. After trials of Continental beef breeds, some Islay farmers have returned to breeding Aberdeen Angus cattle, producing traditionally-reared beef with it's excellent qualities. Fine herds of Aberdeen Angus cattle are bred by the Kerrs at Scarrabus Farm and by the Archibalds at Craigens, amongst others. The Aberdeen-Angus breed was developed in the early part of the 19th century from the polled (naturally horn-less) and predominantly black cattle of Northeast Scotland. As with other breeds of cattle and sheep in Britain, establishment of the Aberdeen Angus followed improvements in livestock husbandry and transport. Since the 1850s, the Aberdeen Angus breed spread to all the major beef producing countries of the world. This dominance has been achieved as a result of the utilitarian characteristics identified by the early pioneers; easy management, economy of production and superior beef qualities.

Beef Shorthorn
These red and white or roan cattle were very popular as a beef breed, and are still in the breeding of some of Islay's stock cows. The breed was formerly well known in Islay. The Beef Shorthorn's benefits include early maturity and good beef production, and breed is known for being hardy, docile, long-lived and easy breeders. Beef Shorthorns were crossed with the Highland cow to create the Luing breed of cattle which originated in the Isle of Luing in Argyll.

Beef Shorthorn Islay
Beef Shorthorn on the Rhinns of Islay

Dairy Cattle breeds

The Ayrshire dairy cow was very popular in Islay when farms kept commercial dairy herds. Ayrshires were also kept as 'house cows', providing milk for the farmhouse and sometimes for the farm labourers too. When the Islay Creamery was in existence and producing Islay's Dunlop cheese, a notable herd of Ayrshires was kept by the MacLellan family at Kilchiaran farm. Reaching Islay from its home in southwest Scotland, the typical Ayrshire dairy cow is an alert, vigorous medium sized animal Holstein Dairy Cowshowing strong character and mild temperament. This classic cow is any shade of red or brown including mahogany and white, although either colour may predominate. The Ayrshire exhibits style and the breed character for which she is famed, and is the ultimate, economic dairy cow known for high quality milk, longevity, ease of management and overall good health.

Holstein dairy cows
As there is now only one farm, Esknish, near Ballygrant, which produces milk commercially in Islay, there are no longer many purebred Holstein cows left in Islay. The island had once supported up to twenty five dairy herds, but over the years this decreased to just eight. When the Islay Creamery closed in 2000, the island's other dairy farms converted to raising beef herds. Rather than selling all their cattle, some farmers bred their Holstein cows to beef bulls in order to create herd replacements (heifers, young cows) which would have lots of milk for rearing their calves. So the Holstein still has some influence on Islay cattle herds. The Holstein is a tall, lean black and white cow, whose ability to produce commercial quantities of milk is appreciated wherever milk is produced for sale.

Introduction of European beef cattle breeds to Islay
The 1960s saw the introduction to the UK of large muscled draught-bred Continental cattle, mainly Limousin, Charolais, Simmental and some Belgian Blue bulls, and the marketing of beef through supermarkets where quality was somewhat neglected in the interest of economy. Many Islay farmers were quick to note the commercial benefits of these Continental breeds, and many Islay farms use Continental breeds of bulls on their stock cows.

Limousin Bulls near Loch GruinartThe history of Limousin cattle may be as old as Europe itself. Drawings of cattle found in the Lascaux Caves near Montignac, France are estimated to be 20,000 years old, and have a striking resemblance to today's Limousin. These golden-red cattle originated in the Limousin region of central southwest France, a rainy area with harsh climate and poor soil. Limousin cattle became a breed of sturdiness, health and adaptability. The breed has developed from a working draught animal into a highly specialised beef producing animal with a well muscled carcase without excessive fat cover. In 1971, 179 pure-bred Limousin bulls and heifers arrived at Leith Docks in Edinburgh, the first consignment of the breed in the UK. The excellent qualities of the breed, such as easy calving and the ability to produce quality meat with a low proportion of bone and fat, was so impressive that demand grew rapidly. The breed is well suited to the market, which demands a consistent, quality, lean beef product. In December 1998, the British Cattle Movement Service confirmed that the Limousin was the largest numerical beef breed in the UK.

Clydesdale Horse
Islay Clydesdale HorseWhen the Agricultural Improvements of the 19th century combined Islay's small farms or crofts to make larger farms, working these new larger fields required a stronger source of horse-power than the Highland pony was able to provide. Enter, the Clydesdale horse! This breed of tall, strong work-horse was developed in the Clyde valley and Lanarkshire in the 18th century by breeding imported Flemish stallions with local mares. The resulting forward-going, docile horses soon became indespensable on Islay's and Scotland's farms for ploughing large acreages, heavy carting and every kind of farm work. During the 1940s and 1950s when tractors became more widely available the numbers of Clydesdales used on farms declined rapidly, but some Clydesdale horses are still kept as driving horses or for showing, or bred for export. Picture: A Clydesdale at Islay Show, in traditional showing harness. This horse may have been owned by Gilby McCormick Senior, then farming at Gearach. Photo: S Campbell.

Modern Sheep Breeds
As with cattle breeds, 'Improved' sheep and then sheep imported from European countries have been brought to Islay by farmers in search of animals which suit Islay's land and weather conditions and are productive in the economic climate of modern farming.

Cheviot Sheep near Islay's Saligo BayKnown in Highland history as the sheep of the Clearances, when the 18th century landowners found raising large flocks of sheep more profitable than the rents of small farmers, the Cheviot sheep is a useful animal on Islay's farms today. The Cheviot originated in the Cheviot Hills, on the border of Scotland and England. Recognized as a hardy sheep as early as 1372, Cheviots did well in hill conditions with their strong constitution, easy lambing, well developed mothering instinct, and early maturity. The main purpose of the breed is the production of quality lamb. Ewes were originally crossed with the Border Leicester to produce the famous Scottish Half-bred, but nowadays the Bluefaced Leicester is used to produce the Cheviot Mule. These crosses, when put to a Suffolk or continental sire, produce quality butchers' lambs. The Cheviot's wool, which was once the base for the Borders tweed industry and could pay the tenant farmer's rent, has now declined to be of marginal importance. It is used in the tweed and carpet industry, with a small amount being used in the craft trade.

Scotch Mules
When crossed with the Scottish Blackface hill ewe, the Bluefaced Leicester ram produces the famous Scotch Mule. The majority of the cross-bred ewes in the UK, and many in Islay, are sired by the Bluefaced Leicester. This hybrid combination produces a hardy, thriving lamb, and a crossbred ewe ideal for today's sheep industry. Mule flocks have been shown to be a profitable Scottish commercial sheep enterprise.

Sheep at Kilchiaran BayThe Texel sheep originates from the island of Texel, off north-western Holland, where it has been known since Roman times. In 1970, Texel sheep were introduced to the United Kingdom by the Animal Breeding Research Organisation, who imported four rams for experimental purposes. Another four followed in 1971, and extensive trials compared the Texel's qualities with other terminal sires. The Texel excelled in carcass quality and in particular, in lean meat yield. Texels have joined the Suffolk as sires of quality prime Islay lamb.

The Texels are capable of withstanding the rigours of the Scottish winter, and their progeny are adaptable to our climate. Donald MacCormick (Senior) of Blackrock farm was one of the first in Islay to use a Texel tup on his Cheviot ewes, and the breed suited his farm so well that his whole flock is now Texel sheep.

Present day and future
As time has gone by, Islay's livestock and farming practices have developed in line with those in the rest of Scotland. Work which was once done with hand tools when farms employed whole families of labourers is now a thing of the past, and all but the smallest farms are fully mechanised. Having large labour forces at work on the land is also a thing of the past, with farms of hundreds of acres/hectares now worked by only two or three people, with a whole shed-full of machinery and a few self-emloyed contractors for busy periods.

Tractor working the land at Ardtalla
Tractor working the land at Ardtalla

These days, the demands on farmers have changed from food production to farm owners and managers being held responsible for wildlife and environment protection and for stewardship of the countryside for all to enjoy. Some Islay farmers have turned to marketing quality produce with 'value added', processing and selling foods on their farms, in local markets or over the internet rather than selling all their produce for others to prepare for the consumer. Also, there are few Islay farms without part of their steadings or old cottages developed into holiday letting accommodation to supplement the farm's income. With rising transport costs for materials, equipment, fertilizers and bought-in livestock feeding adding to the already high overall cost of food production in Islay, it is essential that farming's overheads do not reduce profits beyond the point where farmers are able to make a living and stay on the land. Our farmers must be supported to invest in the futures of their farms, and so in the beautiful countryside of Islay.

Continue Reading Historic Overview Islay Farm Animals

Further relevant readings:

  • The Pigs at Dunlossit Estate - written by estate manager Chloë Randall.
  • Islay Farming - Problems and Challenges the Islay farmers face
  • Islay Farms - The Islay Farms and Land Use
  • Avonvogie Abattoir - official website

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