This 'Stories within Our Isles' is an extract from the recently published Pipers Farm book called 'The Sustainable Meat Cookbook' by Abby Allen. Pipers Farm is both a farm and collaborative business, working with a range of local farms to produce nutrient-dense food. The book evokes their passion for producing wholesome natural food that has been grown with respect for nature.
Native Breeds & Why They Matter - On the wild coasts of Exmoor there’s a memorable sight to be seen in winter. Cattle with a rich, tufty, auburn coat curled into licks, peer out from faces caked in salt crystals. These are Ruby Red Devons, a hardy native breed that forages in the moorland landscape, feeding on rough grasses that few modern livestock breeds would contemplate. On these hills where the moors meet the cliffs, the winter weather blast salt-laden air inland, coating the vegetation and the cattle in fine white sea salt. It’s brutal at times, but these are animals that have thrived in this landscape for centuries, bred to have thick protective coats, to be nurturing mothers and to produce delicious meat off meagre grazing thanks to an admirable hardiness.
Red Rubies (as they are known in farming circles) are one of many native livestock breeds that collectively offer a treasure trove of environmental and culinary riches. For centuries farmers and smallholders developed lineages of livestock from goats to cattle, sheep to pigs, beautifully adapted to the different regional climates and rural habitats across the British Isles, as have communities all over the world. Careful cross-breeding was used to favour desirable features such as milk productivity in dairy cows, meat marbling in beef cattle, mothering instincts in pigs and lambing frequency in ewes.
Crucially, this would all be in the context of these animals eating nothing but the food that was already plentiful where they were. For cattle and sheep this could be moorland grazing in the uplands, or pastures, meadows and coastal salt marshes at lower altitudes, while for pigs it would be rooting in woodlands for beech mast and acorns and in turnip fields, or on kitchen scraps from the farmhouse. All of them would effortlessly convert modest natural food into meat, milk and useful by-products such as leather, fleeces and fat. Grass would be supplemented as needed in the winter with stored alternatives – hay, silage and fodder, such as beets or traditional arable crops like barley which needed little to flourish in the British climate. Fertility to boost crop or pasture growth came from the livestock itself in a balanced cycle that required little to no input from beyond the farm gate.
Today the mainstream meat and dairy system is very different. Hybridized breeds are the focus, animals whose genome may be patented and owned by agricultural tech giants. These sprinters produce significantly more meat or milk per animal as they are typically larger, leaner and faster-growing than traditional breeds, creating the economies of scale and favourable reduced ‘unit cost’ for the industrialized system. Simply put, there is more milk per animal or more meat per carcass hook, faster. As with most perceived advantages however, this comes at a price. With thin skins and a huge hunger to feed all that growth and productivity, they need an athlete’s diet to match and have a constitution that puts them at the more fragile end of the spectrum compared to those hardy native breeds.
This is where what we feed our livestock becomes an important issue. Grains such as barley, wheat and maize are more nutrient- dense than grass alone and have been used to supplement cattle feed for decades, particularly to speed up the ‘finishing’ phase of getting an animal to slaughter weight. Some hybrid dairy cattle don’t have the ability to eat, digest and process a natural grass diet fast enough to fuel the production of milk their bodies have been bred to produce. In the 1940s and 50s complete ‘concentrate’ feeds were developed, designed to give livestock all the nutrition they needed in every bite. This comes in the form of pellets called nuts or rolls, formulated by nutritionists from commodity-traded grains, and making use of manufacturing by-products such as spent cooking oils or processing pomaces, and was a convenient way for the farmer to know that the animals had everything they needed from their diet. More recently soya has also been piled into these, as its high protein content is particularly easy for animals to digest, making that growth all the swifter. The numbers are staggering: 27 million tonnes of soya was grown in 1961, and in 2018 that figure stood at 350 million – 70% of it was fed to livestock.
It’s a similar story with all the classic British farm animals; native breeds have been pushed to the margins to make way for hybrids with high productivity of meat or milk that the industrial system favours. Where once farms across the country had their distinct local breeds which were venerated and treasured, now the vast majority of livestock from intensive systems are from just a few commercial variants, fed on manufactured feed blends based on globally traded ingredients. In contrast those native breeds were animals bred to thrive on a simple diet that required no flown-in, globally traded, manufactured feed. These global food economics distort local systems. Vast monocultures across the world produce arable crops to feed livestock. Forced to move to economies of scale with fast-growing breeds, with calculated daily rations of feed, farmers move animals indoors and rural jobs are reduced. Food produced locally is sold globally, has to be transported to distant processing plants and packhouses, rather than being consumed where it is grown and reared, with a far smaller footprint.
The loss is cultural too. The poetic names of native breeds at risk of disappearing are loaded with meaning and history: Lincoln Longwool and Whitefaced Dartmoor sheep, White Park and Vaynol cattle, British Lop and Tamworth pigs, Brecon Buff geese, Harvey Speckled turkeys and Shetland ducks. When carefully managed, native breeds are a powerful conservation tool as well, happily grazing uneven, hilly land that is unsuitable for growing crops, and boosting biodiversity as they move through the landscape, clearing spaces for other species and encouraging insect life with their dung and the trophic cascade that follows.
Grass-fed native livestock breeds grow slowly. This allows the flavour of the meat to develop, for the marrow, cartilage and marbling to be loaded with nutrients, meaning each cut goes further as you only need a little to impart a meaty, satisfying element to the dish. Vegetables cooked in beef dripping, or rice cooked in lamb stock give you the umami hit without the heft of industrial meat’s dizzying environmental impact.
The demand for meat, and cheap meat at that, is at the heart of the issue. Global meat production has tripled in the last 50 years, powered by all this breeding and feed innovation. It is unrealistic to think that we can go back to a time when meat was farmed in balance with the countryside at the rate it is consumed today. What we can do is eat far less of it, and question where it comes from, what it eats and where it roamed. Less and better is the way forward. We need to reclaim our food system at the farm gate. That’s where hope lives.
Words & Photography by Pipers Farm