Try a little tenderness: on the farm with Scotland’s Wagyu cattle

Mohsin Al-Tajir and his wife Martine’s Wagyu beef may fetch as much as £220 a kilo, but the fine-boned animals require specialist care to avoid fractures. Photograph: Steve Cox
Mohsin Al-Tajir and his wife Martine’s Wagyu beef may fetch as much as £220 a kilo, but the fine-boned animals require specialist care to avoid fractures. Photograph: Steve Cox

Japanese Wagyu cattle, which produce one of the most expensive meats in the world, are coming to Scotland.

The highly marbled, butter-soft beef, considered by gourmets to be the most tender and succulent meat, will be labelled Highland Wagyu.

Wagyu beef sells in Japan at around £10,000, up to five times the price of what Scottish farmers get for the carcass of indigenous breeds and can fetch £500 per kilo in shops and restaurants.

Michelin-starred chefs Angela Hartnett of Murano and Clare Smyth of Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, both in London, have already expressed interest in buying the pedigree beef after visits to Blackford Farms near Dunblane. The first cuts will be on the menus of top restaurants by 2014 and Tom Kitchin, of Leith’s The Kitchin, says he thinks the idea is “phenomenal”.

Mohsin Al-Tajir and his wife Martine returned to Scotland from semi-retirement in Dubai last October to begin a new life as breeders of the delicate, highly pampered cattle, whose beef is so prized that gourmets are prepared to pay £220 a kilo at shops such as Harrods and Harvey Nichols.

Mohsin, son of the billionaire Highland Spring owner Mohammed Madhi Al-Tajir, says, “We’re not going down the supermarket route, because our Wagyu will be premium quality aimed at the top end of the market.”

These animals are more expensive to breed than indigenous breeds because they require large quantities of silage feed, with powdered Shetland seaweed and naturally occurring omega-3 oils to increase fertility and encourage a healthy, warm coat.

They require to be fed for much longer before slaughter – 600 days compared to 250 for their Scottish counterparts. To protect them from unnecessary stress and fractures, the animals – which are fine-boned and have an unusually high meat-to-bone ratio – are kept in airy sheds that are Zen-like in their peacefulness. The animals are only allowed out to pasture in spring, when the danger of slipping in the winter mud and breaking bones has passed.

The Al-Tajirs – whose new company is separate from the family-owned Blackford Farms – have invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in sheds, and plan to spend another £1 million as their herd expands.

To build their pure black Wagyu herd, the couple purchased two pedigree Wagyu bulls, seven heifers already pregnant with Wagyu calves and 40 pure Wagyu embryos (at £750 a pop). The fertilised embryos were implanted in surrogate pedigree Aberdeen Angus and pedigree beef Shorthorns in a meticulously orchestrated IVF and surrogacy programme, which produced 13 pure Wagyu calves.

Those heifers who rejected the fertilised embryos have been put with the Wagyu bulls, and they have produced 12 tiny Wagyu cross calves.

The couple have built a unique pen system that allows the calves to play away from their mothers – who are unused to the delicacy of the Wagyu breed – while still being in their full view. “Like a calf nursery,” says Martine.

By the end of next year, the couple expect to have 60 pure Wagyu calves and 100 cross calves. Not all will be slaughtered the following spring as the heifers will be kept for breeding and building up the herd and selected males will be kept as sires.

In the longer term, the plan is to have a farm that produces 1000 pure Highland Wagyu cattle every year.

Diners can expect a steak that is loosely structured and full of flavour due to its lace-like marbling – which is healthy, unsaturated fat.

“Our idea is not to saturate the market with pure Wagyu,” says Martine, “because 99% of the population haven’t tried it yet. We prefer to introduce the cross beef first to educate people to its benefits.

“Scotland has the best grazing land in the world and its beef Shorthorn is the best beef in the world. The Shorthorn Wagyu cross will be a totally new product which even we haven’t tasted yet, and we are very excited about it.”

Get involved
with the news

Send your news & photos