Teams of both Highland cattle and Highland ponies will be heading to Ingliston from The Queen’s Balmoral Estate. Angela Calvert finds out more.
THERE is a long history of Highland cattle and Highland ponies on The Queen’s Balmoral Estate, near Ballater, Aberdeenshire.
The fold of Highland cattle, started in the 1950s, now stands at about 50 cows plus followers. It is managed by Dochy Ormiston, whose wife Sylvia runs The Queen’s Highland pony stud on the estate.
The couple met at the Royal Highland Show in the 1980s, then worked together on the Meggernie Estate, Glen Lyon, Perthshire, before moving to Balmoral 10 years ago.
Although now focusing on cattle, Mr Ormiston’s family have a long history with the Highland pony breed, and this year he is judging the Sanderson Trophy at the Royal Highland for the supreme Scottish native horse or pony, competed for by the champion Highland, Clydesdale, Shetland and Eriskay animals.
Although absent from the showring last year, Balmoral Highland cattle have enjoyed considerable success over the years, winning at most major Scottish shows.
Mr Ormiston says: “We had a break from showing last year, but will be back at the Highland this year. Success in the showring raises our profile and helps sell stock.”
The team will include the current black stock bull, Prionnsa Dubh of Craigowmill, bought privately from breeder Ken Brown’s Craigowmill fold at Kinross as a youngster.
This took breed championship at the show in 2015, along with a home-bred yearling bull and two three-year-old heifers.
Mr Ormiston says: “We are fortunate the fold was founded on quality stock, with previous estate factors investing in good genetics, but we are always looking to improve quality of cattle and aim for good clean bulls with a leg at each corner.
“We breed for temperament and cows have to have good udders, feet and legs. But to compete with other breeds, Highlands have to have some size and be able to hold flesh.
“There is a danger that as a breed the Highland is becoming too small. All hair and horns is no good.
“We took reserve inter-breed at the 2015 Turriff show with a two-year-old heifer, Connachat 90th of Balmoral, which was also part of the winning inter-breed team of three at the Highland the same year.
“We also had success at LiveScot fatstock show, Lanark, with a bullock, which proves good Highlands can hold their own against more commercial breeds.”
Several bulls are sold each year, either privately or at the society sale at Oban, with a top price so far of £10,000. About eight to 10 of the best heifers are kept as replacements.
Bullocks and the poorer end of the heifers are sold to Aberdeen Highland Beef to be finished.
Mr Ormiston says: “This is a good arrangement which works well for us. Bullocks go as weaned calves and we keep heifers inside for their first winter, give them a summer at grass, then sell them. We just finish two heifers off grass which are used by the estate chefs.”
Cows calve from March onwards and calves are fed creep about a month before weaning.
Heifers are put to the bulls at three years old and currently three bulls are being used.
Mr Ormiston says: “As well as the senior bull, I am using two young home-bred bulls. I had wanted to buy another stock bull at Oban, but could not find what I was looking for.”
Mr Ormiston’s brother Fergie helps with the showing of cattle, but preparations do not start too early, as he explains: “We have handled heifers a little bit and washed them, but I do not believe in doing too much walking as they get dour. I like them to have a bit of sparkle in the ring.”
They are a passion Mrs Ormiston shares with The Queen, all of whose Highland ponies are now bred there.
Balmoral is first and foremost a sporting estate and the Highland ponies play an important role carrying deer and grouse back from the hill.
Mrs Ormiston says: “We breed for brain, bone and conformation, in that order.”
The Queen is very involved with all aspects of the operation and likes nothing better than spending time with the ponies on her visits to the estate and is in regular contact with Mrs Ormiston about them.
The ponies’ education starts early. They are introduced to deer skins while in the field as yearlings, to familiarise them with the feel and smell, then they start to be broken to ride as three- or four-year-olds and are all taught to ride and lead.
As part of their training, they first follow one of the more experienced ponies walking on the hill to learn how to walk the ground and cope with the terrain before being asked to carry stags or the grouse panniers themselves. Any which are found unsuitable to work the hill are sold as riding ponies.
During the season, about 16 ponies will be used up to six days a week. Some will carry stags or hinds using an improved pack saddle specially designed by Mrs Ormiston, while others will carry panniers which take the picnics on the outward journey, then bring grouse back from the moor.
While the ghillies manage the ponies on a day-to-day basis during the season, Mrs Ormiston and her team have overall responsibility and spend the weeks before ensuring ponies are fit and ready to work.
Mrs Ormiston says: “They have to be not too fat and not too lean, but need to be fit. When not working, they are at grass all the time, but get fed every day.
“They get chaff and a bespoke balancer which I developed with a feed company. This includes a mycotoxin binder and hay or haylage as required.”
A handful of ponies are selected to show, but even these are trained to work and will usually do their share either before or after a career in the ring. This year Mrs Ormiston will be taking a team of three to the Royal Highland Show.
The breeding programme, of which the focus is to produce true-to-type Highland ponies, is managed by Mrs Ormiston in close collaboration with The Queen, who names all the ponies, as she does the cattle.
The stud is currently running three home-bred stallions – Balmoral Mandarin, Balmoral Hercules and Balmoral Lord – from three different families, and five foals are due this year.