On the hill farm of Treshnish, Carolyne Charrington, says all her lambs are slowly-reared. “It’s slow food, if you like. They’re not in a feed-lock, or in a shed being stuffed full of concentrates.” In 2011 she and her husband Somerset were declared Britain’s most wildlife-friendly farmers after winning the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming award for the way they manage the land a bit differently. For example the silage is cut later so corncrakes and other birds can nest, and flowers are able to seed.
With its golden eagles, profusion of butterflies, and “cattle knee-deep in wild flowers and orchids”, Treshnish proves that farming and conservation can live in harmony. Indeed they have to, for if the age-old rhythms of sheep-farming were ever broken because it was no longer viable, everything would suffer.
“The land would eventually revert to woodland, bog and bracken,” says Carolyne. “Bracken’s a really big problem on the West Coast, and if there weren’t farmers making a living from the land, the bracken would go crazy and there’d be northing for the tourists.” And, as the landscape became more inaccessible, “the whole eco-system would change,” adds Iain Mackay. “A lot of the habitats and species of flowers are there because of the way it’s farmed, not in spite of it.”
Somehow this is farming as nature intended - the polar opposite of the battery chicken or the industrial pig. The result is meat of real quality that deserves a premium, and yet the economics of hill farming are notoriously fragile. Also, until recently, everything disappeared into the food chain to be labelled Scottish lamb or just lamb, with its Argyll provenance buried for good.
But even the Scottish version can be hard to find compared to the ubiquitous New Zealand lamb. Supermarkets would tell you that it’s all to do with price points and economies of scale, but it makes no sense to the locals or anyone touring the West Coast and passing endless hill farms en route. As the Ancient Mariner might have put it had he been marooned in Argyll and not at sea: ‘Sheep, sheep, everywhere, nor any a lamb to eat.’
There is a glimmer of hope however, thanks to a group of hill farmers and a meat wholesaler in Oban, who decided to club together and sell Argyll hill lamb under a new logo featuring a blackface sheep. “All the animals are born, raised and finished in Argyll,” says John Forteith. “I’d say what makes them unique is they are smaller animals that are leaner and more flavoursome.”
Rather than some anonymous commodity, this lamb is a source of local pride. “The animal has a story and comes from a particular farm,” he continues. “People visiting the area can see what beautiful scenery we have, and can then taste the fantastic produce we have growing on our doorstep.” It seems obvious and yet there are reasons why Argyll lamb has been so hard to find. Hill farming has always focussed on store lambs that spend five or six months on the hill until they are taken off their mothers to be finished on richer, lowland pasture often in England. According to Angus MacFadyen, another local farmer, the vast majority of Argyll lamb is slaughtered south of the border, at which point it becomes just ‘lamb’.
The tradition goes back to when farming on the West Coast was all about cattle that would be taken down along the old drove roads to be finished and sent to market. “It’s not only that you want to get the lambs onto better grass so they finish better,” says Iain Mackay. “You want to let the mother get through the winter again. It’s very hard to get onto these hills to feed the ewes, so the majority are surviving on what’s naturally available to them. Years ago the lambs would spend a year or two on the hill to be finished as mutton.”
This gave farmers an extra income from the wool with the very best of it used in Harris Tweed, but there has since been a collapse in wool prices and it seems we’ve forgotten how to eat mutton. Most Argyll lamb will always be finished elsewhere, but where it can be done it makes sense to do so because there is clearly a demand. Since deciding to concentrate entirely on Scottish and Argyll lamb, Forteith’s sales are up three-fold, while the beef supplied by Treshnish to the local village shop in Dervaig is also flying off the shelves.