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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin



The Chinese year of the goat would seem to be. an appropriate time to take a look at what is happening in Scotland and in particular, Caithness, in an endeavour to develop the cashmere producing goat as a possible and viable farming and crofting enterprise.. Much has been said in recent years about the severe pressures facing traditional farming systems, not least of which is sheep and wool production, where the British wool market has reached its lowest ever point. 'The need for diversification' and 'exploring alternative land uses' have become the 'in' phrases in agriculture.

The idea of introducing fibre bearing goats to Dunbeath came about some six or seven years ago and considerable research was carried out thereafter in association with the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute. Several factors started to come to the fore and to suggest that the production of cashmere could hold exciting prospects for Scotland. As a nation Scotland uses 60 per cent of the world production of cashmere. The world-wide consumer demand for apparel made from this fibre is not being satisfied and the gap between production and demand is widening. Until very recently the major sources of cashmere were China, by far the largest producer, followed by Mongolia, Afghanistan and Iran, the political instability of each being pretty well undisputed. A home grown cashmere would seem even more vital in the light of the most up-to-date business reports emanating from the textile industry. These state that with the liberalisation of the Chinese economy, the effect of a newly introduced market economy forced prices up and the cost of importing cashmere to the U.K. virtually doubled.

With the decision made to pursue the cashmere farming trail two methods of husbandry were embarked upon in 1987/88. The first and longer programme was that of the grading-up of the native feral goat over a five or six year period by very careful genetic selection . This arm of the project Is run in conjunction with the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute who monitor all aspects of a herd of goats presently maintained at the Glutt, Altnabreac. Eight other farms in Scotland are participating in this particular scheme, and results to date are proving promising.

In an endeavour to improve the quality of fibre produced, buck goats have been imported from Iceland, Russia and Tasmania to be crossed with feral does. The words billy and nanny have sadly been ousted in favour of buck and doe!

The second, and by far the major method of goat farming from Dunbeath's point of view gives the benefit of many years of research work carried out in Australia and New Zealand, where high quality cashmere-producing stock already exist. In January of 1988 the Estate imported 200 frozen embryos from New Zealand to be implanted into 100 recipient dairy type goats, with the intention of accelerating the creation of an elite breeding stack of cashmere producing goats.

The embryo transplantation surgery was carried out over a period of three days by a team of New Zealand veterinary surgeons accompanied by an embryologist. A highly sophisticated mobile unit was based at Dunbeath Mains farm for the duration of the transplant exercise, which had followed a very carefully controlled synchronisation programme.

The same year saw an importation from New Zealand to Dunbeath of some 200 high quality live animals. These were flown by Jumbo Jet and the only technical hitch on the journey followed when they ate the veterinary and customs clearance documentation which some official had carefully nailed to their crates.

Today the herd at Dunbeath stands at over 1000 and growing fast with the 1991 kidding season just around the corner.

Already the fibre being produced is of a quality high enough to satisfy the most discerning of people, the cashmere manufacturer and all of the harvest has been processed and made up into scarves for the export market. With the nucleus breeding herd set up the next stage of the project is to involve farmers and crofters throughout the Highlands and Islands and to this end the Estate has set up what is called a 'Buy Back Scheme'. It is recognised by the Company that cashmere goat farming Is a high risk venture and it was decided therefore that as an incentive to others wanting to enter the business, some form of guarantee should be offered which would give farmers and crofters confidence in the future of this very young agricultural enterprise. In short the farmer Is guaranteed a market for his livestock and fibre production and as long as he or she remains in the scheme their goats will be carefully monitored on a regular basis by the goat specialist consultant based at Dunbeath. He will also be available to teach and explain to farmers the principles of farming goats for fibre and how this alternative can be integrated with their existing system of husbandry.

There is undoubtedly profit to be made in cashmere but only if you know what you are doing and above all are not expecting such profits to happen over night.

In the words of Lord Sanderson of Bowden in his capacity as Minister of State, Scottish Office, addressing a conference on cashmere goat farming last year - "I believe you have a recipe for long term success. Please press on". He also reaffirmed that there was a desperate need for more cashmere and argued that it was right to seek to produce a proportion of that cashmere from Scottish goats.

In concluding this short article I would like to extend an invitation to any member of the Field Club to visit Dunbeath and see for themselves life amongst the goats.