From a history in commercial cattle, to establishing a new Highland cattle fold, Catherine McKechnie has always had a passion for quality stock. Lynsey Clark finds out more.
The McKechnies have always enjoyed keeping and showing commercial cattle as a sideline to the family’s fruit and vegetable business, near Loch Lomond, but Catherine’s long-held ambition to have her own Highland cattle fold only came to fruition around 10 years ago – and what a decade it has been.
In that time, their cattle have secured championships at many of the prominent shows across the coun- try, including the Royal Highland in 2013. However, it is not the show successes which have had the biggest impact on the family – it is the camaraderie within the Highland breed and the friendship and support they have received from fellow breeders, as Catherine explains.
“The Highland crowd are really lovely people and great fun to be around. We have always had cattle, but I had no idea what was involved in keeping Highland cattle, so I have had to learn along the way and the other breeders have been a huge source of help and advice.”
The McKechnies are based at France Farm, Gartocharn, West Dunbartonshire, from where Catherine’s husband Jim, runs the family’s fruit and vegetable business along-
side his brother. Supplying both re- tail and wholesale customers, the business was established back in the 1950s by their father, Jim Snr.
Despite this busy family enterprise, the McKechnies have always made time for their other passion – breeding and showing commercial calves – which has brought them plenty of success over the years, including wins at the Scottish Winter Fair and the
Royal Smithfield Show, in London.
In fact, it was a mutual love of showing commercial cattle that brought Jim and Catherine together in the first place, back in the early 1980s. More than 30 years later, their family has extended to son Jamie and daughters Jade, Bobbi
and Georgie, plus Jamie and Suzanne’s twins, Cameron and Isla, and Jade and Don’s daughter Esmi.
Nowadays, the commercial herd is currently down to three cows and two calves, which run alongside 18 Highlanders on 26ha (65 acres), 14ha (35 acres) owned and a further 12ha (30 acres) rented from a neighbour).
The first members of the Gartocharn Highland fold were two yearling heifers, purchased at Oban in 2009. Catherine says she liked the look of them, and the fact that they seemed quiet.
“Temperament is so important, we do not keep any cattle that are wild, there are no second chances for them here. Jim heads to the fruit market at 1am every week-day morning, so if there is anything calving, I need to be able to handle them myself. That is one of the reasons Highlanders suit us – they calve easily – and they are also easily managed and work well on a simple system.
“We calve mainly between January and March and the cattle are out all year round.”
It was the purchase of the show cow, Morag 44 of Woodneuk, from Willie and Tom Thomson in 2010, which allowed Catherine and Jim to make their debut in the Highland show circuit, and Catherine admits she has been ‘hooked’ ever since. Morag went onto have a successful show career, most notably winning the International Highland Cattle Show at Pollock Park in Glasgow, in 2011. The family now shows annually at six local shows and the Royal Highland.
Young heifer from the Gartocharn Highland fold
Catherine says: “After Morag, we bought a few more privately, from the Laggan and Merkland folds. I have had to learn which breeding lines I should be looking out for, and my mum’s partner Rich Thomson has been brilliant at teaching me that. He is a fantastic help with the cattle too and every Friday through the show season, he comes and helps prepare the cattle for the next day.”
Well known stockman and Highland enthusiast, Rich’s help with the cattle proved particularly crucial in 2013, when Catherine was diagnosed with cancer. That year, while she was receiving treatment, Jim led their heifer Bhoidheach Ruadh 1 of Merkland House, to an overall breed championship win at the Royal Highland Show. She had been bought as a calf at foot, alongside her dam.
“That was an amazing achieve- ment for us and it came at just the right time, when I was needing a distraction from the chemotherapy. Having the cattle really helped me through it – the fact I had to get up and get on with it kept me moti-
vated. The people within the Highland breed were brilliant too; they did not treat me any differently, but were there when we needed them.”
Thankfully, Catherine received the all-clear at the end of 2014 and she has no doubt that family, friends and her beloved cattle all played a part in helping her maintain a positive attitude throughout.
Having gotten so much out of being part of the Highland Cattle Society, Catherine gives back her time and effort by being current chairper-son of both the West of Scotland Club and the Society’s advertising and promotion committee. This is in addition to working nightshifts as a palliative care nurse for Marie Curie.
She says: “I really enjoy my job. I get to work one-to-one with patients in their own homes, and any stress built up from work is always relieved by my home-life – the cattle, my family and my grandchildren.
“I have been chairperson of the advertising and promotion committee since the beginning of this year.
We hold fundraising events and also work at promoting the breed in the hope of boosting the member- ship. The membership is currently sitting at 967, with around 400 of them actively registering calves on an annual basis. Also, 80 per cent of the membership are classed as smallholders – most of them have other jobs and keep the cattle as a sideline.
“There is a lot of scope to promote the Highland as a crossing breed, especially as native breeds are increasing again in popularity, throughout the UK and abroad.
“I think a lot of people on big units are put off by the horns, but we find them to be easily handled, easily fed and with great temperaments.”
The cattle handling system at France Farm has been improved recently by Jim and Catherine’s son-in-law Don, who has built them a new shed and renewed the crush, replacing it with a wider one specifically for the Highlanders.
“The family are great at helping out and if we are away, we know we can rely on them to take care of the cattle.
“The Highland Society has a great young crowd who are really enthusiastic about the breed. At the Royal Highland Show, the young ones are happy to socialise with the rest of the breeders instead of heading to the Young Farmers’ dance.”
The McKechnies are hoping to show some of their youngsters at the Stars of the Future event at Stirling in November, for the first time. And, they are feeling positive about their own stars of the future, current calves on the ground off the bull Balmoral 2 of Brogach.