Broken Belts

Walking them out to the trailer in Castle Douglas

Crucial to record the arrival of two more cows to the “Working for Grouse” fold on Friday. Management of native cattle for conservation purposes has been a sub-plot to this blog for the past year, and the addition of two more galloways will hardly be much of a surprise to any loyal readers, but these heifers serve a strategic purpose.

One of the original riggit galloway heifers has been wild since day one, and recent exchanges with two or three people who I regard as “authorities” have suggested that this particular girl will probably not settle down. When we finally caught her in the crush for her jags, she bellowed and bucked, kicking the motorway crash-barriers until they rang like tuning forks. The idea of using her to breed in due course now seems rather problematic, and given that this project is for pleasure rather than financial gain, I don’t see why I should make things hard for myself. I toyed with the idea of buying a pregnant older cow in an attempt to mellow out the group and give them a mother figure, but while this might provide some settling influence, I am still going to be left with a wildcard.

In the event, the decision was taken to buy two or three store heifers at a similar age and fatten them all together to be killed next winter. The offending beast (known as “Maggie”) currently weighs around 300Kg, and it is usual for galloways of this kind to finish at between 550 and 600Kg – she has to hit that window before she reaches thirty months of age, at which point additional tests relating to BSE and disease control will knock the value of the carcass into the wastepaper basket. So the idea is essentially then that she should double her weight in twelve months, and having two additional stores to fatten should make that goal easier without disrupting the three original heifers.

Sure enough, Friday morning found me at the belted and white galloway sale in Castle Douglas. To be quite frank, I’m not a huge fan of belted galloways. My family has a long history with black galloways, and belties always seemed like a showy and rather foppish extravagance. Sinking money into riggit galloways proves that I have an eye for the whimsical, but the fundamental conformation of my riggits is so blocky and roly-poly that they align with my idea of the classic “unimproved” galloway of yesteryear.

I love the straight backs, short legs and stubby noses of my girls, and I often see the same in many strains of white galloway. If nothing else, it’s interesting to compare my riggits with the vast and imperious black galloways which currently win all the prizes in fashionable breeding circles. Many of these are irredeemably ugly to my inexperienced eye, and while they tick the commercial boxes, they bear little resemblance to the stocky, thick-set galloways my grandfather was exporting to Canada in the 1960s and 70s.

While belties attract loving sighs of admiration from across the world, closer inspection reveals that they are a breed apart. They are not just black galloway cows with a white middle, and a huge amount of careful work and breeding has contrived to prioritise the belt over many other (in my mind) much more pleasing characteristics. Perhaps there’s much more to come on this (if only in the form of idle and ignorant speculation), but suffice it to say for now that my eye was drawn to two store beltie heifers of a similar age to my “problem beast”. They were from a reputable local breeder and suffered only the mild embarrassment of a so-called “broken belt” – irregular markings which are the inevitable by-product of pursuing perfection.

The sale was billed to end with a quick romp through the stores, so I was forced to wait in a packed out mart while the elite belties were ushered around the ring by men in white coats. A famous local herd of white galloways was being dispersed, and I was sorely, sorely tempted by some of those gorgeous beasts as they went their various ways. But my moment finally came and the broken belts conspired to keep the price down during a brief and phenomenally macho flurry in the ring. I vividly remember sitting on my father’s shoulders in the same auction house as a child of five, inhaling a semi-transparent fug of cigarette smoke, sheep shit and onion gravy. Returning to buy my own beasts felt like a milestone of maturity. Thankfully, the hammer dropped at an excellent price.

I brought the beasts home on Friday, and they were settled in with the riggits on Sunday while deep banks of fog beaded the sloes and fieldfares rattled past overhead. My mind was still racing with images of those dear white galloways, but I consoled myself with the thought that I will work towards them, and that the day’s primary objective had been achieved without bankruptcy.

As a footnote, everything I write on cows (indeed, anything I write on anything) usually comes more from enthusiasm than experience or genuine knowledge – if you think any of these notes are incorrect or based on rank idiocy, please feel free to let me know – this whole project is founded on a desire to learn, so feedback and differing opinions are always welcome.


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