Jeremy Perkins humbly described himself as a 'peasant cow keeper' when we met, but his cattle farming activities are far more interesting than this description suggests. It’s certainly true that his output of beef is very limited and probably not economically viable unless customers would be willing to pay something close to the price of saffron for it. The meat is, apparently, of excellent quality but the real value of his operation lies elsewhere.
Jeremy with his Stowmarket Riggits.
Galloway cattle are amongst the oldest of our native breeds. They are, of course, a Scottish breed and not immediately associated with East Anglia. But Jeremy is on a mission to change that, and with very good reason. The older cattle breeds have characteristics that make them especially interesting for their conservation value, and particularly in the rough and damp pastures of Suffolk’s flooding river meadows which present some of the same challenges for grazing as the Scottish hill country where you’d normally expect to find Galloways.
Hatherland Finlay, Jeremy's champion Riggit bull.
Jeremy has a particular passion for a rare variant of the Galloway known as the ‘Riggit’, which, in old Scottish vernacular, refers to the white line down the back. He attempted to explain to me, with limited success, the complexities of dominant and recessive genes in Galloway cattle markings and why the Riggit came close to but survived extinction. You can read more on Jeremy’s own instagram feed @twomills, or on the Riggit Society website here. Interestingly, German researchers have found that the now extinct original wild cow, the legendary Auroch, may have had Riggit markings, which is a pleasing connection between the breed and our ancient pre-agricultural landscapes.
The distinctive white stripe of the Riggit.
I visited Jeremy’s small herd of mostly Riggit Galloways kept on Higher Level Stewardship grazing at the Museum of East Anglian Life at Stowmarket. HLS is the highest level agri-environment payment scheme offered by DEFRA. On the Museum’s land, the old drainage ditches have been restricted on the 6 fields that run alongside the River Rat, restoring the fields to a more natural state, closer to a marshland, with enhanced biodiversity as the consequence, not to mention the advantages of water retention, soil protection, carbon sequestration and flood mitigation. In the fields you might observe orchids, egrets or water voles amongst the beds of osier and the deep rush river banks.
Restricted drainage ditches.
Grazing cattle perform an important function in disrupting ground cover, allowing pioneer plants to establish themselves. And Galloways are medium size cattle which means they are less likely to turn wet land into a mud bath than the bigger modern breeds might. Like Highland cattle they are endowed with dual coats; an oily outer coat concealing an inner downy one, making them well suited for living out, year round. The other advantage of the older breeds is their undiscriminating dietary preferences. Happy to munch on pretty much anything, they utilise, and help to control the dominance of the coarse grasses and reeds that emerge in these re-established wetlands.
A Riggit calf with Beltie markings! (ask Jeremy for an explanation!)
The environmental impact of intensive beef and dairy farming never seems to be far from the news at the moment. But the importance of large grazing mammals in our landscape and their value to conservation is also a hot topic. I’ve just been reading, and strongly recommend, Isabella Tree’s ‘Wilding’ that goes into detail on the subject. With the help of 'peasant cow keepers' like Jeremy Perkins we might eventually find a sustainable balance between wildlife conservation and food production. It'll also help if we start paying the right price for the right food!
Melkridge Lady, the matriarch of the herd.