By Rory Stone


IRELAND’S dairy industry has a lot in common with its Scottish counterpart. Both are on the western fringes of Europe, with temperate climates, plenty of rainfall and rich soils which support some of the finest grazing in the world.

But there the similarities start to diverge. Ireland’s milk production increased by more than 50 per cent from 2008 to more than eight billion litres now, and exports are north of €4bn, making dairy the largest food and drink export category.

In Scotland, the picture is less rosy. Scottish production ranges between 1.2- 1.4bn litres a year and has been bumbling along at this unambitious rate since 2003.

Making money out of milk – and its by-product, cheese, in whose sector I operate – has never been easy. In 2014, the Scottish Dairy Growth Board was established to identify the challenges facing dairy farmers and cheesemakers – the latter take 40% of all production – and fostering a collective will to overcome them.

In a spirit of positivity, it is only fair to applaud the ambitions of the board, though its tangible achievements are still struggling to catch up. It aims to generate £600 million in new sales, including £200m of new cheese sales, £150m from new product development and £150m from fresh milk exports.

By far the largest slice of the cheese market in Scotland is Cheddar, but increasingly small-scale independent producers are making inroads with blues, soft cheeses and sheep and goat’s milk products.

These artisans – many are farmers or farmer’s wives – have formed the Fine Cheesemakers of Scotland to raise the profile of their cheeses in the rest of the UK and to find and exploit export markets. Similar ambitions, in fact – just on a smaller scale – to the Dairy Growth Board.

But perhaps instead of chatting amongst ourselves, we should be turning our eyes to the Emerald Isle to see how they are getting things so right.

It is instructive, I think, that while we have closed down the wonderful agricultural college at Auchencruive in Ayrshire – which turned out so many far-sighted and successful farmers – Ireland has established a dedicated Centre of Excellence for cheesemaking at the University of Cork.

It advises, guides and supports new and existing participants in the industry, and encourages the artisan sector to actively combine to promote and sell not only their own products but each other’s, creating economies of scale and slashing transport costs.

The Scottish Dairy Growth Board says in its latest strategy report that 15 new international markets have been entered, and that also is to be applauded, but flying salesmen in suits with tartan ties round the world is only a part of the answer.

Ideally, Scottish cheesemakers need to upsell as the whisky industry has so successfully done and promote their wares, not as a grocery item but as premium products.

Ardbeg Distillery, which recently sold a single cask of Islay Malt for £16m, showed the way. No harm can come from trying to emulate its methods.


Rory Stone is head cheesemaker with Highland Fine Cheeses