Bovine Population – by Duncan Harley


You may have stumbled upon the writings of Melanie Reid of Spinal Column fame. Injured in an equine fall and now as recovered as she can be, she writes Notebook for The Times. And a good thing too. Always entertaining and always reflective she pens useful words.
Today’s Notebook column leads with the economic disaster facing the Campbeltown Creamery. A farmer-led crowdfunding appeal has failed and the century old enterprise seems likely to close with both job losses and consequent effects for a west coast economy dependant mainly on fishing and tourism.

In short, this end-game will have grave consequences for the 29 or so Mull of Kintyre farms who up until now routinely sent their milk for processing prior to shipment to the multitude of Tesco and Morrisons outlets up and down the land. She writes eloquently about ‘The ripples of human misery which accompany such change’ and states that ‘Scotland’s bovine population is at its lowest since 1957.’ I have no insight as to the source of the statement, which Melanie refers to as social geography, but it struck a chord regarding my own journalistic sources.

The various Statistical Accounts of Scotland offer rich pickings to the budding historian. Essentially a series of documentary publications related in subject matter though published at different times, they cover life in Scotland in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Those needing to know how many acres of land were under cultivation in any shire in Scotland in 1791 need look no further. And those who seek to understand the lot of the ordinary folk of past times will not be disappointed. Since the accounts at were often commissioned from the local clergy, alongside the counting of sheep and the estimation of the acres in cultivation an element of judgemental prose often haunts the tomes. In an account of Inverurie for example, we learn that the population are generally sober and industrious; this despite the 18 or so public houses which then served hard liquor to the thirsty townsfolk.

The Old Statistical Account of Scotland was published between 1791 and 1799 by Sir John Sinclair while later volumes were published under the auspices of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland between 1834 and 1845. These two early series are held by some to be among the finest European contemporary records of life in the towns and countryside of Scotland during the agricultural revolution. Other publications such as Alexander Mackie’s 1911 classic ‘Aberdeenshire’ mimicked the early accounts and described the county of Aberdeenshire in cold statistical terms.
Thus we learn from Mackie’s account that in the pre-turnip Townshend era “as many as 12,000 beef cattle” were annually sent to England via droving routes. The remainder being killed and salted at the end of the season since there was insufficient winter feed to tide the beasts over. The advent of steam navigation, he writes, put paid to this annual migration and the drovers were soon vying with both the steam trains and the coastal steamships for trade.
By 1909, he records that there were an astonishing 204,490 agricultural horses in the entirety of Scotland of which 31,592 were to be found in Aberdeenshire. Apparently, there were also 168,091 cattle and the county could boast almost a quarter of a million sheep - second only to the County of Argyll which topped the polls at nearly a million.


Nowadays of course, we tend to consult Google as a trusted got-to-first source. The oracle today asserts that there are currently 1 billion cows on the planet. Seemingly in 2016, ‘the Scottish cattle population consisted of some 1.80 million spread over some 12,000 agricultural holdings. Of the female cattle in the government survey, aged one year and over, the number of beef cattle was 711,000, with dairy cattle lagging behind at 276,000, or 15 per cent of the total count. In both of these categories, the majority of cattle were those over two years old with offspring while 30 per cent of the survey were calves under one year old. Limousin remained the most popular breed in Scotland, followed by Aberdeen Angus and Simmental. Among dairy breeds, Holstein Friesian accounted for over 60 per cent of dairy cattle. Eighty-four per cent of beef cattle were cross-bred, whereas 89 per cent of dairy cattle were pure-bred.’

All splendid stuff. I’m off to count interplanetary sheep for a bit. My head hurts. 

Duncan Harley is author of two books about the North-east of Scotland. Both – The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire and The Little History of Aberdeenshire – are available from Amazon.


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