As the world supply of fuel, fertiliser and arable crops grows shorter, attention is turning to beef cattle breeds that thrive under extensive systems.

The commercial beef industry, both in the UK and across much of the world, has focussed on continental cattle breeds that require significant consumption of cereals, normally demanding considerable inputs of artificial fertilisers. Systems and cattle breeds have adapted to utilise the abundant cheap cereals, and become reliant on heavily mechanised forage methods, in the latter decades of the twentieth century. As the century closed, significant tracts of uncultivated marginal land in the UK had started to fall into disuse, having become uneconomic for intensively produced beef.

But with peak oil production behind us, and a new economic climate, the maths driving livestock enterprises are changing rapidly. Although the 2008 harvest has temporarily pulled the price of corn back down, all the signs are that the price of arable products is going to inexorably rise.

Traditional breeds of cattle, developed over centuries to thrive on grass based systems, and on less productive land are making a comeback, not least the Galloway breeds. Utilising poor and unploughable soils, often in areas of extreme weather, has long been an accepted niche for the ancient Galloway breeds of cattle.

There are several types, from the traditional solid coloured blacks and duns, the iconic belted, the whites, with their black or red points, and the rare, and recently resurgent 'Riggit' marked. What they all share is their hardy constitution, and their ability to convert natural unimproved vegetation into high quality beef.

While many breeds have chased ever-higher growth and conversion rates, which all come at a cost, devoted Galloway breeders have remained focussed on the fundamental qualities of their stock, including the sound constitution, longevity and reliable breeding.

Black Galloway breeder John Finlay of Blackcraig in Corsock, Dumfries. reports 'Even at our very low stocking rates on the hill ground, we've found that crossbred cows just won't do, while the Galloways will go on producing a saleable product. The steers grow away, happily living outdoors all year round'.

At the opposite end of the country, Colin Nankervis keeps Riggit Galloways on the gorse and boulder strewn hills of West Penwith in Cornwall. Mr Nankervis says 'It's all very well testing which bullock grows fastest on maize silage, but when what you can actually grow is heather and whins, that seems a bit irrelevant. Better to see which cow will rear a calf on your ground in the first place'.

He goes on to observe that 'It's easy enough to shovel grub into a continental beast, but when the grub is doubling in price, and has to be carted half way across the country, shouldn't we be looking at a beast that fattens on what we've got?'

The various Galloway types have also long found a quietly unsung favour around the world, in spots where hardiness is the 'make or break' of a cattle herd. North American Alan Bias, of Montana, reports 'When killer blizzards of decades past hit the plains of the upper tier, Galloway herds would emerge intact, while those composed of less hardy breeds would be consumed in entirety.'. Mr Bias goes on to say. 'As input costs continue to rise, the Galloways ability to convert cheaper fodder into live weight gain through rotational grazing will become apparent. Utilization of stockpile and winter coat reduces harvested winter feed requirements'.

Coupled to a resurgence in straight commercial interest, has been the conservation lobbies growing interest in Galloway cattle. Recognition of the part they have played, and concerns about recent declining cattle numbers, on hill ground, peat moors, and various types of lowland heath, has recently put the Galloway breeds in favour with many conservation bodies.

Having been adversaries for some years, cattlemen, 'land managers' and ecologists have found that their paths are converging. According to Julian Hosking, Native Breeds Adviser for Natural England, 'The raising of suckler beef under extensive management systems utilising such low levels of input is an easily justifiable enterprise, and one that should be receiving far greater consideration in the quest for more sustainable grazing systems - especially as it also contributes to the essential maintenance of the native farm animal genetic resources of the UK'.

Hill sheep men have long known what conservation professionals are now appreciating, that sheep will follow Galloway cattle into ungrazed moorland, as the cattle open a sward. This is second nature to long established Galloway cattle breeder, Colin Abel, who, with his brothers, grazes a large herd of Galloway and Galloway cross cows far out on the Forest of Dartmoor SSSI. As Mr Abel says 'We've always kept up the cows, to open up the vegetation for the sheep. The fact that the Forest is such a ecological gem is no coincidence, and is in no small part thanks to the Galloway cattle'

The icing on the cake for the breeds' recent resurgence has been the rising interest from the specialist butcher and connoisseur market in Galloway beef. Whilst there is ample science to show why it is healthier, and eats better, it is still simply the fact that Galloway beef does eat so well that gets top chefs using it. Says Belted Galloway breeder and butcher Tim Wilson, of the Ginger Pig Company in North Yorkshire, 'The beef from Galloway steers is right at the top of the shop for eating quality'.

For further information Or contact the individual breed Societies The Galloway Cattle Society Dorothy Goldie 01556 502753 The Belted Galloway Cattle Society Myrna Corrie 01557 820218 The Riggit Galloway Cattle Society Anton Coaker 01364 631276