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A meaty subject, so we must beef up production

Many will tuck into a roast of beef over the festive period, and who can blame them?

In my opinion you can't beat properly-hung, well-marbled beef.

King of all beef is Scotch beef that has been granted Protected Geographic Indication (PGI) status by the EU.

PGIs are one of three EU schemes designed to protect traditional local food specialities, such as Arbroath smokies, from cheap and inferior imitations. These schemes are backed by EU law and protect wines such as champagne, or cheeses such as Gorgonzola and can only be labelled this way if they come from the designated region.

Scotch beef has to be born, reared, finished and slaughtered in Scotland, and nothing less will do. For instance, a beef animal that has been born, reared and finished in Scotland, but slaughtered in England cannot be sold as Scotch beef.

There are many reasons why Scotch beef is superior to other types, but the main one is that it is mostly bred out of traditional, native breeds such as Aberdeen Angus, Herefords and Galloways. Such breeds are famed for the tenderness of their beef and the fine marbling of fat that gives it flavour and succulence.

Scotland currently exports about 75% of its beef to the rest of the UK and Europe – and sales are booming to such an extent that it commands a 10% premium over other types of beef.

Despite that success story, Scottish beef farmers are keeping fewer beef cows in response to poor and non-existent returns. Year after year, official statistics show the average UK breeder of beef cattle loses money, and if it weren't for subsidies they would not be able to make a living.

In Scotland the number of beef cows peaked at 535,000 in 1998, but that figure now stands at 450,000 – and that poses a problem for those who market Scotch beef and are trying to fulfil growing order books, particularly for exports.

Fortunately, there were about 10,000 more beef calves born in Scotland last year, compared with the previous year. All well and good, until you remember that more than 20,000 store cattle (younger animals that need to be grown out and fattened) were sold to farmers south of the Border, and the figure is growing.

Buyers from England and Wales are increasingly travelling north to buy our stores, because Scottish cattle have high health status, and, more importantly, Scotland is officially free of bovine TB.

Then there is the traditional, cross-Border trade in prime cattle, as abattoirs source additional cattle to meet their weekly throughput targets – and that is another problem faced by abattoirs – loss of critical mass, that has seen some meat plants close recently, while others are reorganising or consolidating.

The tragedy for Scotland is that we are losing out on a glorious chance for increased exports.

The Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers (SAMW), along with many other farming organisations, has repeatedly expressed its concerns to the Scottish and UK governments, as well as the policy-makers in Brussels.

It has strongly argued that to take full advantage of the growing export opportunities for Scotch beef, and the increased employment opportunities that come with that, there needs to be additional incentives to encourage farmers to produce more.

One of the ways suggested has been to increase the payments of the Scottish Beef Calf Scheme, that offers various levels of subsidies on beef calves, and is worth about £25m this year to Scotland's 7500 beef producers. I feel that even if those payments rose by 50%, which is highly unlikely in the current economic climate, it still wouldn't make that much difference.

There should be special, subsidy payments made for keeping beef cows in recognition of their value in protecting and enhancing habitats and ecosystems, particularly on upland and hill pastures.

Not only is the non-selective grazing of cattle a big environmental plus, their dung pats are a valuable source of insects such as dung beetles for birds and bats.

There is an urgent need to find a way to stabilise or increase Scottish beef cow numbers, particularly when you remember that Brazil is poised to flood European markets with cheap beef on the conclusion of an imminent trade deal.

I may not be sure how best to encourage Scottish farmers to keep more beef cows in the face of such a challenge.

But I do know it is important that we do – because, above all else, increasing the Scottish beef herd will create badly needed and sustainable Scottish jobs.

Contextual targeting label: 
Agriculture

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