Face to Face with Charlie Bell
by Claire Powell
Few people have been associated with the Luing breed as long as Luing Cattle Society Honorary Life Member, Charlie Bell.
Now happily living the retired life of a grand father and expert dahlia grower, while enjoying the scrumptious fare of super-cook wife Anne, in the Highland Perthshire village of Blair Atholl, Charlie's involvement with Luing cattle began before this young breed was officially recognised by Act of Parliament in 1966.
Born in 1939 in East Lothian, the son and grandson of two hard working farming men - William and John, who between them worked a total of 90 years on the same East Linton farm, Charlie's early childhood memories include coming home from school and helping to chop turnips for the housed cattle before going in for his own meal.
In these days the beef industry was monopolised by native British breeds, the Continental cattle breeds had not yet crossed the English Channel.
"There were two breeding herds on the farm at the time" explained Charlie - "a nucleus herd of 40 Highlanders, some of which were crossed with a Shorthorn bull to maintain a herd of 40 cross-bred cows which went to an Aberdeen-Angus terminal sire".
Another of Charlie's vivid childhood memories was his first day at the local primary school. Aged just five years old, his mischievous eyes fell on another five year old who was also starting her schooling - a very pretty little girl called Anne. Fourteen years later, aged 19, Charlie and Anne were wed and have produced four, now grown up children - three daughters and a son, who in turn have supplied a clutch of grandchildren.
After leaving school Charlie worked as an agricultural engineer, stockman, tractor and caterpillar driver, until in 1963, aged 27, he was interviewed for the job of Farm Manager at Duncrahill in East Lothian. The interviewer was the late Denis Cadzow, one of the three Cadzow brothers who developed the Luing breed on the small Isle of Luing, a few watery yards off Scotland's mainland west coast.
"Fortunately I got the job", said Charlie. "To work with and for Denis Cadzow was really exhilarating - the man had visions way beyond the times".
In 1947, Denis Cadzow, along with brothers Shane (also deceased) and Ralph, the current Luing Society President, had laid the foundations to the Luing breed, using a blend of Highland and Beef Shorthorn blood, on their tiny 3,813 acre island, with the basic aim of economically producing reliably productive cattle for their finishing units in East Lothian (at the time Denis Cadzow was finishing up to 800 head per annum).
Selection for their nucleus breeding herd on Luing was not based on show ring rosettes nor bulbous bums, but on fertility, efficiency, functionality, ease of management, in particular calving, longevity and above all - the ability to annually produce a top quality calf while living outside year round, on a diet of little more than grass.
"This was my first experience of working with Luings", said Charlie. "And I was amazed at how much weight the steers put on in their second summer at grass. Almost all of them finished by October at between 450 to 500 kgs liveweight.
All the pure bull calves from Luing came to Duncrahill in the autumn, to be halter trained and assessed by Denis Cadzow.
"The young bulls were lined up as Denis made lengthy notes on each one", recalled Charlie. "He would then head back out to Luing for a week to check their dams - their breeding history, udders, feet, legs and temperament. Once back at Duncrahill, he would line the youngsters up again and without hesitation, cull those bred from cows which had a fault, regardless of how good the young bull looked.
"He would spend hours on this and I'm sure he could visualise each cow on Luing as he looked at her son at Duncrahill".
The Cadzow brothers clearly had a passion for progressive cattle breeding. Speaking at the 1967 Cambridge Cattle Breeders' Conference, Denis Cadzow told his audience - "I often think that one of the most satisfactory things in this life is when you get a group of calves which have just that much more good in them than either of the parents individually".
After assessment of dams on Luing and youngsters at Duncrahill, the best yearlings went back to Luing as stock bulls, with the very best of the second string being offered for sale. "The atmosphere at those early Luing sales in Oban was electrifying", added Charlie. "The parties the night before were great too!"
Some things have not changed over the decades!
The three Cadzow brothers were opposed to competitive cattle showing, but still needed to promote their new breed to potential customers, so took their Luings to various agricultural events throughout Britain.
"One year they decided to stage a Luing breed demonstration at Portree Show, on the Isle of Skye", recalled Charlie. "So we filled the stock lorry with cattle and piled gates for penning on the top, and set off from Duncrahill at seven o'clock in the evening. We caught the Skye ferry at six o'clock the next morning, set up the display on the showground, showed these cattle off to the Skye folk all day, loaded everything back up that night and drove back to Duncrahill. Two nights without sleep, but well worth it - there was lots of interest in the cattle".
Another Luing cattle "missionary" expedition saw Charlie and team set off for Turriff Show in Aberdeenshire, where they learnt that folk in that area have a language all of their own. "One of the first farmers on the stand asked me something which sounded like "an' fit wd you do wi' a' the heeer?".
Then another farmer refused to believe that the bullock on the stand still had his calf teeth, so a chap known as "Big Tam of Dalkeith" jumped into the pen, grabbed the bullock and wrenched its mouth open - just like the Wild West. It was a great day!"
After a decade at Duncrahill, Charlie moved on to fresh pastures, in time taking over the management of Traquhair in Peebleshire, a three farm enterprise totalling 4,500 acres owned by the Maxwell-Stuart family. Here the cattle were Blue Grey cows crossed with Limousin bulls, a Luingless spell for Charlie Bell!
Illness forced the Maxwell-Stuarts to cease farming in 1988, just when Atholl Estates in Perthshire - 73,000 magnificent, mainly wild and stunningly scenic acres, peaking at 3,700 feet, then the largest area of privately owned land in Europe, needed a working farm manager. The 1,200 acres of ploughable, "good stock land" carried a lowland flock of 500 ewes, with a further 2,000 Scottish Blackfaces on the hill ground.
Breeding cows were 90 spring and autumn calving, in-wintered, Hereford cross Friesians, put to a Charolais bull.
"It immediately seemed obvious, with hardly any land below the 1,000 feet contour, that the Luing breed would really suit Atholl Estates", said Charlie. Turning thoughts into deed, within a couple of years he had purchased 16 Saler cross Luing heifers to replace culled Hereford cross Friesians.
These Luing cross heifers performed so well, that by 2004 Atholl Estates had a spring calving herd of 180, mainly Luing blooded cows, including a nucleus herd of 52 pure Luing females, crossed with a Simmental to produce Sim-Luing heifers for replacements and sale, with the Simmental cross steers, sold as stores. Pure Luing replacements were purchased from the Society sales at Castle Douglas.
"All the cows were out-wintered on straw, before receiving silage and two pounds of cow cobs a day, about six weeks before calving", explained Charlie.
"The Luing cows have a tremendous ability to forage away into the hills. They're also cheap to over-winter, yet thanks to their great milk yield, still produce a quality calf. During my time at Atholl Estates, there were some extremely wet and snowy winters, yet the out-wintered Luings and their crosses came through without any problems".
Charlie retired from Atholl Estates in November 2004, after 16 fulfilling years, but before he did, he laid the foundations to his dream of establishing a self-contained, pure Luing herd on Atholl Estates.
Much to the delight of the McNee family who run the Benhar herd at Armadale in West Lothian, at the February 2004 Luing Society sale in Castle Douglas, Atholl Estates, with Charlie's finger bidding, paid a (then) new Luing breed record bull price of 8,000gns for Benhar Diesel, a polled bull.
The current Atholl Estates BVD and Johnes Accredited breeding herd of 160 cows, carries a substantial amount of Luing genetics. The land has been farmed organically since 2001, and between 2007 and 2010 was a Quality Meat Scotland Monitor Farm. Surplus breeding heifers are snapped up by Monitor Farm community group members, after seeing just how well the Luing blooded cattle perform in such a challenging environment.
Charlie's Luing cattle experience and knowledge have been put to good use by the Luing Cattle Society - he has served three terms as a Council Member.
"As a breed Council we've tried to keep everything as simple as possible, and not bogged down with too many rules", commented Charlie. "The important thing is to keep the Society and the cattle breeders focussed on the qualities of the Luing breed - productive, fertile, easily managed, long living, hardy and functional, producing a great calf weight per cow - the foundation qualities so skilfully laid by the Cadzow brothers!"
Laughter frequently rings out at Luing gatherings, and Charlie Bell is often in the midst of the mirth.
"We have some tremendous memories and have made some marvellous friends, thanks to Luing cattle", said Charlie.
"In particular it was a special privilege to have worked with Denis Cadzow in the 1960's, and to have been involved in his vision to develop an easily managed, low cost, functional and productive suckler cow, capable of living and thriving outside year round, in challenging upland environments. The Cadzow brothers work then, is spot on for now - the Luing's time has well and truly come!"