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Shorthorn World Conference
by Eilidh MacPherson
President of the Beef Shorthorn Cattle Society during the last two World Conferences – in Australia and Canada – Major John Gibb, Glen Isla Estate, Blairgowrie, Perthshire is one of the host farmers in Scotland this year.
Delegates from across the world have an action packed programme of visits commencing at the Scottish Parliament on the 23rd of June unil the conference concludes at Stratford Upon Avon on 9th July.
Numbers of Shorthorn cattle forward at the Royal Highland Show are significantly up this year, as Beef Shorthorn breeders from the 13th World Confernece look on, from fifty-six last year to one hundred and thirty seven head this season.
Following the Highland Show, the party heads to, Bowhill Estate home of the Duke of Buccleuch and to James and Debbie Playfair-Hannay’s Morebattle Tofts herd at Kelso.
On Monday 28th June, with a visit to Glamis Castle, Angus, in the morning, delegates will lunch at Glen Isla House before walking round the Balnamennoch herd, with Major Gibb – a director of the Shorthorn Society – his daughter Catriona and cattle man of thirty years – Arthur Lawrence.
Sixty-five polled Beef Shorthorns are in residence up Glen Isla, on the 3500 acre hill property. “We keep everything, finish the stots, sell a few bulls and any surplus heifers are sold for breeding,” said Major Gibb, whose grandfather bought Glen Isla at the end of the first World War.
“My Grandfather’s principal livelihood was from the Flax trade. My father was here as a boy and preferred to farm than go into industry.”
Having spent ten years serving in the Army in the Royal Scots Guards, himself, until his father wanted to retire, Major Gibb said, “In a funny sort of way I have a guilty conscience as during my time in the army there was not much happening. Northern Ireland had not started and there were no troubles like there are today in Afghanistan or Iraq.”
He served in Scotland, England, Germany, North Africa, Kenya, Aden and as a piper in Canada and the USA, as well as two years at Sandhurst as Adjutant, where he had to learn to ride a horse, before coming home to take over the reins at Glen Isla in 1966.
The Major (now 74) signed over half of the Estate to his eldest son – Alastair (38) – six years ago. Alastair, who graduated from Cirencester, decided to sell his 3500-acres and emigrated to New Zealand with his English wife, due to a lack of viability in hill farming in the UK and what he thought the future had in store.
“Maybe it was a bit of the father/son business but I reckon he did the right thing. He is share farming on one property, near Masterton, in the North Island, running mainly Romneys and a few grazing cattle – Angus in breed. He also bought some land, where he runs sheep, fattens cattle and lambs and crops; wheat, peas and fodder rape. He plans to build a house there. We look forward to going out each year from mid February to March.”
Back at Glen Isla, there are 200 acres of arable for hay, silage and some rape production, 350 acres under trees and the rest is heather hill.
Historically cross Highland cattle were purchased from Oban and covered by an Aberdeen Angus bull. “It is probably the best cross in the world, but they went out of fashion and my father bought Irish Blue Greys for a while.”
When Major Gibb took the helm he purchased some pure Shorthorn heifers and built up numbers over a few years. He modernised the herd, using some Maine Anjou blood in the ‘80’s, which, “helped increase size over one or two generations and reduced fat in the carcase.”
Thereafter bulls were mainly sourced from overseas. He picked one sire from Tasmania up at Heathrow airport and another from Canada at Prestwick.
More recently bulls have been bought closer to home, with Fearn Wyvis from John and James Scott, in Ross-shire, leaving a lasting impression on the herd. “We traded him on to someone in the Broders – he did very well for us. Donald Biggar of Chapelton, Castle Douglas (another visit on the conference itinerary) bought a son for 6200gns.”
Currently a mix of stock bulls and foreign semen are being used on this hill property, which rises from 1000 feet at the steading to 2400’ on the heathery hills, which are part of the Grampian Mountains. Polled Shorthorn sires are preferred and for the past four years the team at Glen Isla have managed to produce no horns – even on the 15 Highlanders, which are crossed with Shorthorns!
Holmere George P and homebred Glen Isla Blizzard, who as his name implies, is white are in residence, while straws from Australian sires: Broughton Park Thunder and Belmore Fuel Injector and worldwide favourite – Canadian, Einmor Mr Gus – are at the ready.
Apart from a short spell prior to calving in early to mid February, these hardy cattle are out-wintered. “The problem here is that it is very expensive to buy in straw bedding, once the haulage is taken into account and the carrot farmers in this part of the world don’t do us any favours using it to cover their crops!”
They are then grazed on improved grassland until August, when they head to the hills until the weather dictates.
As we wandered round the cows and calves, they barely flinched proving the docility of the breed.
Registrations at BCMS – the British Cattle Movement Services – of Beef Shorthorn cattle have increased over the past few years, while most others have decreased. “People are waking up to the Shorthorn and realising that the cow is worth having,” stated the Major.
Sheep numbers were reduced from 650 to 425 head when the farm acerage was halved. “It became uneconomic and when our shepherd of 33 years retired in December, we decided to operate with a part time shepherd. We are hoping it will work out.”
To bring in some hybrid vigour to the Perth type Blackface flock, the Gibbs have infused a lot of Lanark blood to the top end of the flock to breed replacements. Border Leicester and Texel tups are also used for fat lamb production.
Before Alastair emigrated, the farm was run as organic, but due to increased paper work and decreased premiums for organic status stock it was decided to let it lapse. Like many other hill properties it is run almost organically anyway, apart from the odd spray of dockens.
Natural seaweed licks from Glenside Organics which provide enough iodine to help prevent retained cleansings, supplement the silage. Homeopathic treatments are also used to a limited extent.
Other income on this Estate is dervied from stalking. Until recently Major Gibb also tended to the stalking on the top end of Glen Isla, which was sold to an American.
This year four or five Shorthorns from Glen Isla, in the Angus Glens, will be on Parade at the Royal Highland Show. “We have won the Royal Highland three times in my time. One or two of the top breeders are very difficult to knock off their perch! We won with a yearling bull one year, selected by an Australian judge.”
The scenery in the Angus Glens will enthral overseas visitors and the chance to capture newly restored Ogilvie Castle in the background of their Glen Isla Shorthorn snap shots will cap it all. It was built in 1590 as a keep between Glen Isla and Glenshee, burnt down in 1640 and restored to its former glory a few years back.
A visit to Carey Coombes's Lanarkshire herd and Donald Biggar's Dumfriesshire herd the following day will conclude the Scottish leg of the 13th World Conference.