Shetland Life Features: Where’s our beef?

The potential market for locally reared beef has probably never been greater in Shetland, but the product itself is becoming increasingly difficult to buy. Neil Riddell finds the industry is being held back by internal disagreements, and that progress may be reliant on old quarrels being set aside.

When it was announced a fortnight ago that top French chef Jean-Cristophe Novelli would be visiting the isles for the inaugural Shetland Food Festival later this year, the cook paid lip-service to the “exceptional lamb, beef, fish and shellfish” available here, prompting one agriculture industry figure to ponder: “What beef?”

There are straightforward geological, topographical and climatic reasons why Shetland lags behind Orkney in the beef industry stakes, with the peat and heather hills much less suitable for grazing than the flat, green terrain of the neighbouring archipelago. Orkney’s geology favours the soils in a way that little of the land in Shetland does, with specific characteristics of the grass providing the main diet of the cattle.

That said, historically the isles carried close to 20,000 cattle in the 19th century, reputedly of better quality than those kept in Orkney, but the two communities opted to pursue radically different directions: Shetlanders took to the sea, and Orkney men became Scottish farmers. That pattern was compounded in the second half of last century as oil arrived in these parts, while Orkney put substantial chunks of its development budget towards building infrastructure to add value to their herd.

Although the nature of the land means it is unlikely that Shetland would be in a position to export beef in meaningful numbers, the end result in 2008 is that Orkney is widely known for the quality of its cattle while Shetlanders are left wanting for locally-born, reared and slaughtered cows. The picture has deteriorated substantially from the 1980s, when the Boddam slaughterhouse was thought to be killing up to 500 cattle a year, and even two years ago when up to 300 were being slaughtered for local consumption.

A confidential report to councillors in early 2007 noted that beef is “a woefully underexploited resource in Shetland”. It stated: “Whilst the generally poor quality of much of the Shetland landmass predicates against significant numbers of beef stock, there is nevertheless a potential market domestically at least for locally reared beef.”

According to the latest Shetland in Statistics, two years ago there were 2210 beef cows and heifers in Shetland, down slightly from 2492 in 1971. The same year, 2158 cattle were exported, a slight increase on the 1947 cattle exported in 1971. Shetland is now importing thousands of carcasses a year to sell in butchers, local shops and supermarkets, but opinion within the industry is polarised as to who is to blame and, for some, whether the production of more local beef is even desirable.

One industry source says: “Shetland wants local beef, but they can’t get it because of these people whose motivations are not community-based.” Others contend that farmers would be better off shipping all of their livestock to the mainland for finishing.

Some in the industry see the key to the future of the meat industry as lying in the development of a modern slaughterhouse facility, the need for which the same council report described as “undeniable”. There are currently two slaughterhouses in Shetland, a decline from the nine operational in the isles in the 1970s: the Boddam slaughterhouse operated by Magnie Smith of Shetland Meat Company, and the Shetland Livestock Marketing Group-run Laxfirth abattoir. But SLMG chairman Ronnie Eunson has previously stated that neither meets minimum EU standards.

Mr Eunson says: “As far as beef in Shetland is concerned, I think it boils down to: if people keep cattle in Shetland, they have to keep more efficient breeds, which tend to be less suitable for the store market – therefore they have to find markets locally as beef. I don’t see that as anything other than an asset.”

But hopes of a new abattoir seeing the light of day suffered a huge blow earlier this year when the SIC revealed that it would only be able to provide matched funding for any such venture, to prevent it falling foul of the European Commission’s state aid rules. This followed a complaint submitted by Mr Smith last year. The council has now set aside £2.4m from within its development budget for up to two years in case the agriculture industry can come up with at least half the cost of a building – for which the price tag, according to recent estimates, would be £4.2m. But the chances of anyone being able to raise £2m by 2010 appear remote – seemingly leaving the promotion of local meat in Shetland in an awkward position.

One source says that any progress is being blocked by the persistent refusal of the Boddam-based business to either upgrade its premises or agree to work within a new facility with others, which prevents Shetland producers from being able to access the market and prevents consumers from having local beef available to them. The source says: “Most of it boils down to ancient perceived and real misdeeds – and at the bottom of it money and envy. They can’t and won’t cooperate or agree long enough to save their own skins.”

To compound the meat industry’s misery, the SLMG cooperative earlier this summer had to abandon talks with supermarket giant Tesco over the prospect of selling Shetland lamb in its Lerwick store because its Laxfirth slaughterhouse does not comply with the retailer’s processing and packaging standards, even though both parties said they were keen to reach an agreement. SLMG says it is not in a position to make the necessary investments to upgrade Laxfirth, particularly because the area of land around the buildings is insufficient to develop the premises. Shetland South councillor and farmer Allison “Flea” Duncan says the failure to reach agreement with Tesco shows that it “may be cheaper for them to bring it in from a supplier south than to buy it locally”.

But his fellow councillor Jim Budge, who is also a farmer and former chairman of SLMG, says that in order to avoid a repeat of the Tesco lamb scenario and to diversify the industry beyond lamb, it will be vital to improve the slaughtering facilities here. Perhaps feeling he has to adopt a diplomatic tone, Mr Budge puts the current problem down to a lack of coordination and cooperation between producers, the abattoir at Boddam and the butchers, but he is clear that the situation is “completely crazy” and that the jigsaw has “a piece in the middle that’s missing”.

“That’s one of the reasons why we need a new slaughterhouse” he says, “that’s independently-run, where everyone can get access to animals whenever they require to. I have no doubt that they [the Boddam slaughterhouse] will kill whatever folk come with, but in reality that doesn’t happen. There’s definitely demand for beef, local butchers would take local bef. We also need a facility which can kill animals and cut them up, a trade for deep freeze meat. Householders would buy beef but it has to be cut up [and there are] no facilities to do that.”

It has also been suggested that the proposed abattoir project rapidly spiralled out of control after the development department got its hands on it. Mr Budge says new ways of funding an abattoir are still being examined but he suggests that maybe “at the end of the day Shetland will have to set their sights a peerie bit lower” and go for a more modest scheme, which could be expanded in the future as trade builds up. “We have to work towards that goal. If we’re wanting to develop the industry, given the circumstances with increased costs, one way is to produce more beef and lamb for local consumption. There’s plenty of beef cattle in Shetland to provide for all of our needs.”

The award-winning Globe Butchers in Lerwick used to stock Shetland beef but stopped around two years ago, with Scalloway Meat Company now the only regular stockist of indigenous beef. Keith Moffat of Globe said he did not want to make any comment on the matter, but it is believed that the butcher is one of those who was unhappy with the quality of finishing at the Boddam slaughterhouse – though there are others who say they have had animals killed there and been delighted with the service.

Mr Smith lays the blame for the sharp decline in the availability of Shetland beef at the door of SLMG, which until recently was supplying cattle to the local market. He says that while some of the cattle brought to Boddam for slaughter were excellent, many more were either poor or very poor – in some cases too light and under-finished. He adds: “The intervention into the marketing of Shetland beef by a group of well-meaning but naive individuals has actually caused the only significant local market for Shetland beef to be lost to the UK mainland.”

According to Shetland in Statistics, the number of cows killed in Shetland was as high as 485 in the early 1970s, but that figure dropped to 282 in 2005 and, according to council figures, to 70 the following year, with the numbers expected to drop further still this year. But projections within last year’s report to councillors suggested that within eight years of establishing a new abattoir it would be “well within Shetland’s means” to reach an annual slaughter figure of 1000 cattle.

Mr Smith says the Boddam premises, which he rents from the council at a cost of £5000 a year, would certainly benefit from an upgrade to improve the lairage, slaughter hall and chill room, but that much of the criticism of his business has been wide of the mark. He says: “What some people fail to recognise [is that] a good slaughterhouse can’t turn poor quality cattle into good quality beef, but a mediocre slaughterhouse can still turn good cattle into good beef. There are folk that don’t use it simply because they’re trying to get a new slaughterhouse and trying to slag off what we have.”

His business is eligible for SIC funding of up to £150,000 over the space of three years under EU de minimis regulations, and Mr Smith denies that he is reluctant to upgrade the facilities, saying he has had some discussions with the council over the possibility of doing so but that he believes nothing can happen on that front in the next two years. “Nobody has said anything like that will be on hold until 2010 but you don’t need to be a psychic to figure it out.”

Mr Smith suggests that a new abattoir makes no economic sense, quoting the council’s own figures showing a best-case scenario of losing £161,000 a year, which he says is based on killing highly unrealistic numbers of pigs and cattle and an “ambitious” number of sheep. He says: “What we need is a mix between what’s affordable and what’s necessary; what’s desirable is something different – some folk desire things that are not very realistic. I would love to see a new abattoir, if somebody could show me figures that tell me it was going to work, I would be a firm supporter.”

It is a view which chimes with that of Mr Duncan, who argues that there is no need for a new slaughterhouse when there are two existing premises, and claims it would be “another white elephant” which would need to be open five days a week to get even close to profitability, adding that, unless subsidies to farmers are brought back, there will continue to be “little or no money in the beef industry”.

While many say a new abattoir is vital to increase Shetland’s ability to rear, slaughter and sell meat on the shelves in shops here without the animals having to leave the isles at any stage of production, Mr Duncan subscribes to the theory that there is no future for meat finishing in the isles, and that livestock should simply be shipped to Aberdeenshire for slaughtering.

“Slaughterhouses are being shut up and down the country,” Mr Duncan says. “Why spend millions when we have two operating here in Shetland at the moment? It’s all down to profitability, if you have to go and buy all your feeds to finish animals here in Shetland, and you have to go to a store to buy in all your stuff, it just can’t pay. There’s going to be less cattle in Shetland unless things change, because the divide between income and expenditure is getting larger all the time.”

Mr Smith, who has been involved in the trade for half a century, says the simple reason for the lack of Shetland beef is the steep decline in the number of retailing butchers and the increasingly selective nature of customers. He says the cost of dealing exclusively in Shetland beef is simply prohibitive and describes the suggestion that the isles could become anywhere near self-sufficient in beef as “absolute bollocks”.

“For six years, Shetland Meat Company [Mr Smith’s butcher in Lerwick] sold absolutely nothing but beef that was grown from Shetland, but during that time we tried to buy Laxfirth and weren’t getting support from the council, so eventually gave it up. That’s basically the main problem – folk want to buy steaks, whatever . . . we’ve been there and done it, it was quite difficult, anybody trying to do it on a bigger scale than we were would [find it] impossible. Shetland beef – there’s nothing wrong with it, but as far as your average butcher is concerned he’s needing exactly what his customers want.”

Industry veteran Brian Anderson estimates that there will only be 70,000 lambs shipped out of the islands this year, which would seem to make diversification of the meat industry all the more pressing. But to an outsider, it is immediately apparent that the politics of the meat industry which are contributing to the lack of locally-available beef in the isles are immensely frustrating.

In a beleaguered sector which has had to cope with the effects of two foot-and-mouth outbreaks this decade, to say nothing of spiralling fuel and feed prices threatening to cripple farmers, surely the industry ought to be united in a fight against its external problems rather than continuing to bicker internally. For the sake of the people of Shetland – many of whom would surely appreciate the option of being able to buy local beef – and the industry itself, it is imperative that the key players resolve to work together to bring the present situation to an end.


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