Am Bratach No. 248
June 2012


 A fine cow, bull and calf of the Gascon breed belonging to Roddy Watt of Loch Borralan, near Ledmore, who has been keeping the hardy French cattle for a dozen years.

French cattle thrive well on Assynt hills
by Mandy Haggith

Many people driving past Loch Borralan, east of Ledmore Junction in Assynt, will have noticed the unusual grey cattle in the fields there. They belong to Roddy Watt, and are Gascon cattle, a breed originally from the mountainous region of the Pyrenees in southern France.

Roddy Watt, who used to keep Highland cattle, said: “They are a hardy breed and do very well in these circumstances. I have found they’re better here than the Highlanders were. They thrive on sparse vegetation in France and so they do fine here”.

Roddy has a herd of twenty-five Gascon cattle, and has been breeding them now for twelve years, since he spotted a letter in the press from the secretary of the Gascon Society, which caught his interest. He was impressed enough by what he learned about their hardiness to buy a bull and a couple of heifers, and he hasn’t looked back since.

He said: “The weather was the one worry I had, but it doesn’t seem to bother them.” In France, they would usually be housed on farms in winter then taken up into the mountains in summer, and Roddy also tries to keep them indoors in winter as much as possible. “They’d be happy enough outside,” he said, “but they make such a mess of the ground. They plough it up and on this peaty ground, if you do break it up, it takes a long time to heal”.

By mid-May, there are several calves close to the house. They are a pretty red colour when they are young, turning grey later, and Roddy speculates that this is perhaps for camouflage. They could certainly blend in among dead bracken stalks. Two of his cows are still waiting to calve, although Roddy would prefer it if all the calves were born earlier, ideally February, so that they are less dependent on their mothers when they go to the hill for the summer.

He grows the female calves on and mostly sells them for breeding. He also breeds some bulls, and the stots that aren’t suitable as bulls he finishes for beef, selling some to an abattoir and the rest locally. Word of mouth is sufficient to satisfy the appetite for locally-grown beef. “We don’t have to advertise.”

The breed is growing in popularity, and Roddy can name farmers in several places around the Highlands (Lairg, Brora, Tomintoul, Aviemore) who are either breeding them pure or crossing them with other beef cattle. He also reams off a list of countries where they are catching on, from Holland, Czech Republic, Italy and Spain to more exotic places like Africa and tropical Guyana, in South America, where apparently they are crossed with zebus and thrive in the steamy climate.

NOTE Gasgon cattle are said to be unusual in the quality of their hair, or rather fur, a contributory factor to their hardiness. Being extra-thick it also has the useful quality of being able to shed water readily. Another desirable quality of the Gascon is ease of calving, figures from France in 2003 from 11,000 cows showing that 98% achieved easy calving. These qualities, added to by quick growth and good conformation make them ideal suckler cows.

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