Farming in the Scottish Summertime
Featuring on the BBC’s Lambing Live last year, Hamish Dykes’ family have been farming in the Pentland Hills since the early 1950s and currently own over a thousand sheep of different varieties, seventy cattle and three dogs that help out with the daily work load. Specialising in breeding lambs, we spoke to Hamish about managing the farm in summer and his favourite lamb and beef dishes to cook on the barbecue.
Summer must be an incredibly busy time for you. What are the most important tasks for you over the summer months for the health and welfare of your animals?
Arriving at the tail end of lambing and calving is like emerging from a seasonal tunnel. You enter whilst the sheds are full of livestock, days are short and the grass is even shorter. By the time you emerge at the other end, the clocks have changed, the days have lengthened, and everything’s looking a little more prosperous. These factors and the multiplying of livestock numbers considerably alter our work priorities.
One of our biggest priorities are the lambs and some of the most imminent threats we have to them are worms and other parasites. We must monitor them closely and apply fly repellent to avoid any maggot infestations. Similarly, the biggest threats to the ewes in summer are mastitis, fly strikes and ending up stuck on their backs (also known as cowped).
For the cows, newly born calves can be quite susceptible to picking up infection through their navels which is why we liberally apply iodine when they are born and monitor them closely in their first few weeks. At around three weeks, our big job is to de-horn the calves. During this time, we also have to get the cows back to peak fertile condition before mating season. This means making sure they have good grass, and are fully recovered from winter and calving by the time the bulls go out.
Farming is notorious for its long and unrelenting hours. Does it get any easier over the summer?
The longer daylight hours in the summer make working easier but also bring about a bigger work load. During the winter most of the land is in a fairly redundant state of hibernation but when spring arrives, it comes to life meaning it needs to be cared for and managed. Old pasture needs ploughing and re-sowing while newer fields need weeding and nutritionally managed. Harvesting old and growing new winter forage is another on-going job that will continue through into autumn. When we are up to date with work, we can enjoy our surroundings in the much appreciated sunshine.
What is the most rewarding part of your job over the summer months?
As livestock producers, we are continually trying to improve what we do and a large part of that comes with selecting good breeding bulls and rams at the start of every season. In the summer months, it is always rewarding to watch the new crop of calves and lambs grow in front of our eyes. At this time, the livestock are at their closest to nature and living almost entirely off the land with very little manufactured inputs. This is also when we can start to tell if our bull and ram purchases were ‘inspired genius’ or ‘momentary lapses of weakness’.
Do you get the chance to entertain friends and family over the summer months? If so, what is your favourite lamb or beef dish for such occasions?
We do enjoy entertaining friends and family at all times of the year, especially in summer. If we eat lamb at home, it will most likely be one of our own and this is always satisfying. One of my favourite cuts for the barbecue is a whole leg with the bone butterflied out. There are some good marinades for this but it works equally well without.
Conventionally, a leg of lamb takes a while to cook but if it’s been boned and butterflied it can be done in 30-40 minutes on the barbecue. It’s also hard to pass on a good beef steak and the better quality the meat, the better it will cook.
As we eat our own lamb, we try to make use of all the cuts rather than just using the ones we thought we preferred. For inside cooking, my favourite part of lamb is the neck fillet for which there are various seasonal recipes. We also make good use of whole shoulders, again boned and butterflied, and the lamb shanks. All of these are very easy to cook.
Is there one thing you’d like more people to consider when buying meat?
It really does pay to become familiar with the many different choices there are when buying a joint of meat. The internet is a good source of information and local butchers are always very willing to spend some time advising about the availability and quality of their meats. Seeing meat closer to the carcass gives a greater understanding of exactly where it came from both in terms of geographical location and which part of the animal’s body.
Becoming familiar with meat opens people’s eyes to dishes they didn’t realise existed and didn’t know they could cook. It also brings back the enjoyment of cooking and reminds us of the importance of family meal times. Every different dish we try will generate conversation and memories- even the ones we might not try again.