Herdwick. Gloucester OldSpot. Belted Galloway. Where once you’d only see these names on pens holding a lone sheep at a country fair, the names of native breeds of lamb, pork and beef are by now a regular sight on restaurant menus. And in the modern food landscape, a growing appreciation for the variety – and sustainability – of Britain’s heritage animals has led to something of a resurgence: in the numbers of people farming them, and the opportunity for us to buy their meat.
A cynic might say putting the name of a breed before a cut of meat is merely an excuse to charge consumers more money, a marketing ploy along the lines of adding the word ‘artisan’ or ‘craft’ to a product. But while conservationists have been urging us to “eat them to keep them” for many years, chefs, farmers, and advocates for heritage breeds are now making the case to consumers looking to eat both ethically and well – that the meat from these animals is of a higher quality, has a lower environmental impact, and offers better flavour all the while.
Native breeds have evolved to thrive in the terrain where they're raised
David Taylor, head chef at Hampton Manor’s new, sustainability-focused restaurant and cookery school Grace & Savour, is convinced breed has an impact on the taste: “The flavour notes, marbling, and fat content all vary so much between the native breeds,” he says. “It offers loads of room for creativity.” And the clue is often in the name: Galloway cattle come from the south-east of Scotland, Wessex Saddleback pigs from the West Country, and Swaledale sheep from the Yorkshire Dales. Each breed has evolved to live in the terrain and to thrive on the forage found there.
“Red Rubies are what we farm and they’re our local breed, indigenous to Exmoor,” says Peter Greig, a farmer, and co-founder of Piper’s Farm, a platform where 40 small-scale family farms sell sustainably produced meat, dairy and grains direct to customers. “Native breeds have the incredible ability to live in the fresh air, and turn really marginal landscapes into something nutritious,” he continues. “They’re the visual, tangible definition of what a landscape produces in terms of food for a region.”
“It’s like terroir in wine,” explains John Pallagi, CEO of Ripon-based online butcher Farmison. Pallagi. “For example, west of Ripon most of the grass is sat on limestone; if we go east, the composition of soil is completely different. It gives meat flavour, and that variety is something we should be celebrating.”
“The sea-salt air of Cornwall, for example, creates amazing crackling on pork, but farming is everything,” Taylor, who works incredibly closely with the farmers he sources from at Grace & Savour, explains. The distinctiveness of flavour in heritage meats is not just down to the breed, he says, but to the ecosystem the animal is part of: “No matter how amazing a breed of cow you may have, if it’s farmed right next to the M25, it’s not going to taste great.”
Likewise, he explains, an industrially farmed heritage breed wouldn’t have the same quality. “Native breeds crossed with good farming is the ultimate win. These animals have adapted to our land better than imported breeds, and they don’t require the antibiotics that intensively bred ruminants do, because their immune systems are naturally built up by the landscape.”
“It’s all linked to how and where the breeds are raised,” says Gordon Ker, founder of Blacklock restaurants. “We use rare and native breeds as they are raised naturally in habitats that they’re suited to. An animal that has been well cared for, eaten a natural diet, grown up slowly and lived to maturity – and where its welfare has been at the forefront of the farmer’s mind throughout – will undoubtedly taste better.”
Meat is a natural product and we should be eating it in a natural way
“The trend when we started farming was towards treating livestock as inanimate objects,” says Greig. When he and his wife Henri started Piper’s Farm on Exmoor in the late 1980s, industrial farming, where animals are bred for quick growth, live in sheds and are fed a diet of soy and other grains, was the standard. In fact, Peter’s own father had pioneered industrial chicken farming in the UK.
“Meat was, and still is, produced on an industrial scale, grown to fit the size of a polystyrene tray, and sold as food,” he says. Once you raise animals to a set specification, it’s a short, logical leap to lab-grown protein, explains Greig, but for him this is a problematic departure from nature. He is keen to farm in line with the landscape and the seasons, and in doing so, to celebrate the countryside that supports us.
“Meat is a natural product and we should be eating it in a natural way,” agrees Pallagi. “For native breeds, it’s the seasons that dictate the level of grazing, not the supermarkets.”
The bright red steaks you find in shops, he explains, are signs of animals slaughtered too young, as a result of trying to satisfy consumer demand. “Rather than meat on demand, our lifestyle should accommodate the seasons – lamb in spring, chicken in the autumn, and beef when it’s ready rather than to size or weight. Instead, we chew fast through continental beef from supermarkets that are chasing yield as opposed to flavour.”
He gives the example of Dexters, a heritage breed originating in Ireland, which don't reach adult weight until they’re around 40 months old. “Yet,” Pallagi says, “99.9% of the meat in supermarkets is under 30 months old. Even if it’s labelled as a heritage breed, we're killing a lot of animals very, very young and, if an animal is underweight or it's got too much fat on it, the farmer will get penalised after the animal's slaughtered. That's taking nature away.”
As animals which have evolved not just to survive but to thrive in their native landscapes, heritage breeds may take longer to mature, but they’re healthier creatures as a result, as Taylor explains: “Ruminants have an incredible ability to seek out the nourishment they need, and plants release chemicals that attract animals to eat certain parts and leave others, which also assists their growth.”
Many regenerative farmers are turning to native breeds to restore the land
Not only that, but arguably their environmental impact is lesser. He continues: “Intensive farming with antibiotics and tight movement conditions prevents the animal from developing properly, limits the development of the natural British landscape and creates more carbon. Whereas the manure of slow-raised, native animals fertilises the soil, which in turn leads to greater plant life, ultimately absorbing carbon into the ground.”
It’s why many farmers practising regenerative agriculture are turning to native breeds as part of their system to restore the land. “Because you only feed them what is a natural diet,” says Greig, “Their gut biome is enhanced, and that in turn increases soil health.”
Not just soil health, but, according to Dr Sally Bell, our own health too. A GP and practitioner of functional medicine working with Hampton Manor, she sees a direct link between the goodness of the soil and our own health: “The quality of soil affects the nutritional status of the plants. The plant's health, in turn, impacts the animal’s gut microbiome. This offers us more nutritious food.”
She points to studies comparing pasture fed and intensive farmed beef and dairy, which show the former have higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids, significantly higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid and vaccenic acid which support the immune system, and higher vitamin and mineral levels, particularly vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and potassium.
“But it isn't just about what animals eat or soil health,” she adds. “It’s about what they’re not exposed to: pesticide residues, routine use of dewormers, and antibiotics.”
It’s why Pallagi is keen to raise labelling standards, so that we know what we’re eating: “When it comes to livestock, it’s not just one thing that affects flavour,” he explains. “It's how the animal’s mother was feeding during pregnancy, how it's grazed, how long the drive is to the abattoir… It’s not surprising that some meat tastes like rubber. I want to see all of that made clear on the label.”
Knowledge, as ever, is power, and the best way to ensure the provenance of the meat we eat is to know as much about it as possible – either by buying from farmers direct, or from reputable butchers, like Farmison, who have traceability on the animal’s life and can vouch for its wellbeing.
The name of a heritage breed, on a menu or meat packaging, isn’t a stand-in for ethical transparency or a guarantee of taste. But, when reared responsibly, native breeds represent a riot of regional difference, excellent animal welfare, and a sustainable, nutrient-rich, flavoursome way to eat meat. For the ethical meat eater, what’s not to love?