Meet the Highland Cattle of Forton

Their flowing locks and cute fringes make them appealing but what about those enormous horns? Roger Borrell approaches highland cattle with some trepidation Photography: Glynn Ward

An ancient breed

They go back many centuries but written records can be traced to the 18th century when most of them were black. Now, they tend to be red or light brown.

They are farmed all over the world and the first highlanders arrived in America in the late 1800s. Now they can be found anywhere from the Outer Hebrides to Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.

According to testing conducted recently highland beef has lower levels of fat and cholesterol and a higher protein and iron content than other beef.

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Highland cattle are, without doubt, the most distinctive farm animals in these islands and, judging by Glynn Ward’s pictures, they make love to the camera in a way that would not disgrace the most simpering supermodel.

If the thick curtain of hair makes them look appealing as they peer through their fringes, the horns give them an edge of danger. Kirk Douglas would have been pleased to sport such striking appendages in his Viking helmet.

But the truth is that like kung-fu masters, they have the power to do you great harm but they rarely choose to exercise it.

‘Yes, they are pretty fierce looking,’ agrees farmer Mervyn France. ‘They look dangerous with those horns but they are not savage at all. They are placid, in fact. So long as you don’t approach them when they have just calved, they’re happy to be petted.’ Some of us will prefer to take Mervyn’s word for that.

Around seven years ago the former Garstang haulage company worker and his wife, Lucy, moved to a large detached house called Carolina in Cleveley Bank Lane at Forton to look after the grounds and maintain the property.

It is owned by high-flying television executive David Chance, who grew up in the house - named after his American mother’s birthplace. He now lives in London but wants to maintain his childhood roots.

Outside the house are around six acres of land and Mervyn persuaded David to make part of it home to two highland cows. ‘When David first saw them he was quite amazed,’ says Mervyn. ‘His wife thought they looked prehistoric.’ Some claim they have been mistaken for woolly mammoths.

Astonishment led to a minor obsession and, since acquiring another 60 acres nearby, the herd (or fold to use the official name) has grown to 59.

All of them are pedigree animals originally from Barrhead, near Glasgow, and they each have tongue-twisting Gaelic names. Mervyn and Lucy, who both grew up in farms around Scorton and Caton, prefer to stick to traditional floral names, like Snowdrop, although a couple are named after the daughters of some friends on one of the Scottish islands.

Being a hardy breed, they don’t take a lot of looking after. ‘They are very low maintenance and you don’t have a lot of vets bills. They are very easy when it comes to calving because each has a really big pelvis. One minute they are in a field, the next time you look there is a calf standing up next to mum’ says Mervyn.

‘But they don’t like being inside at any time of the year. In fact, being shut up can damage their health. They can get pneumonia and die.

‘They are made for a harsh environment. They have two layers of hair, a short one and the longer layer that insulates them. It’s so efficient they can lay down in snow and it doesn’t melt. They like being on rough ground and, in the winter months, we move them to some high ground so they don’t mash up the pastures.’

But this isn’t just hobby farming. The next step is selling the meat. ‘We are fattening up a couple for Christmas,’ says Mervyn. ‘It’s a very high quality meat with a lot of good marbling and it should command a premium as a specialist product.

‘They will go to a local abattoir and not be sold at market so we keep it as stress-free as possible. The meat should then be hung for 28 days. I have eaten it in Scotland and it really is excellent.’

Mervyn and Lucy’s son, Thomas, his wife Becky and their children, Alyssa and Ellie, also help. The youngsters have been involved in showing them at Garstang and Westmorland and they’ve already come away with a clutch of rosettes.

‘We use quite a bit of shampoo and then conditioner,’ says Mervyn. ‘It helps when you are combing out the tangles. Grand-daughter Ellie is only four but she really loves them and is quite fearless. She has even named one calf Sofia after a Disney princess.’

According to Disney, their Sofia is more interested in social issues than grooming. They obviously haven’t met our Sofia.

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