In our latest in our Scotland's Larder, we talk to Jillian McEwan, from Lunan Bay farm about her approach to sustainable farming and all the mischief that goats get up to.

The Yule Goat is a Germanic or Scandinavian character who makes sure that festive preparations are done correctly; but they like to get up to all sorts of mischief around Christmas time.

I tracked down Neil and Jillian McEwan from Lunan Bay Farm, because they know a thing or two about these mischievous beasts for this week’s installment of Scotland’s Larder.

Founded by fourth generation farmer Neil McEwan in 2016, the couple produce sustainable ingredients including pasture-fed goat meat, asparagus and honeyberries at their beachside farm in Angus.

Mrs McEwan tells us about the changes they have made and their regenerative approach to agriculture, saying: ” we see ourselves as guardians of the land, and we want the land to be in a better condition than how we found it, for future generations.”

Mr McEwan was brought up around farming but has been running his family’s logistics and warehousing company for over 10 years before going back to his farming roots by starting Lunan Bay Farm, while his wife had an altogether different background, a PhD in Biochemistry, before working in pharma and biotech in Dundee.

Yule goat

A Yule goat at Lunan Bay Farm. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Then she decided on a career change, becoming involved on the farming side both commercially and practically, she said:”which is great – I love being outside – getting stuck in with the goats and all these different projects we have got running on the farm. There is just so much to learn,”

The pair now share the farm with 250 goats, a mixture of two different breeds; Cashmere which produces soft downy fibres, and Boer which are the creme de la creme of the meat type, Dr McEwan said, “they are the Aberdeen Angus of the goat world.”

The Boer breed originate from South Africa and Dr McEwan explained: “we were really lucky to find a world expert and goaty mentor who just happened to be living up the road from us, visiting some relatives for a year.”

With the advice of Celia Burnett Smith and her husband Geof, they were able to start a foundation herd with really good goat genetics from Australia.

Lunan bay goats at sunset

Dr McEwan said: “there is not a massive pool of information out there. We try and do as much as we possibly can ourselves, and you feel like you are doing about  50 jobs from botanist, to vet assistant.”

They are now the second-largest Boer goat breeder in Scotland but admit it has been a steep learning curve.

The cashmere goats arrived in December 2015, a few days before Christmas in the dark and the rain and the McEwan’s thought: “what have we let ourselves in for here?”

They sourced some cashmere goats, which were the descendants of a herd of animals involved in a Scottish government-funded project in the 1980s to try and get hill farmers to produce cashmere.

Dr McEwan explained: “we then crossbred these animals with the meat goats to create animals more suited to the Scottish climate, and the result is really good meat but an animal suited to Scottish climate, living an outdoor free-range life.”

It was the first time in 50 years that animals were returned to the purely arable farm, she said: “they are great for providing natural fertilizer but they are browsers rather than grazers so they eat invasive plants that would be ignored by cows and sheep.”

Boer goat nibbling a thistle.

Goats are browsers rather than grazers so they eat invasive plants, like thistles. Picture: Lunan Bay Farm

Escapologists

Dr McEwan said: “they are tricky, we have this one, Carlos – one of our breeding bucks – a little black and white cashmere goat.

“Pretty much every day in summer we would get messages from walkers saying ‘your goat is caught in the fence.’ It is a good 30-minute walk from one end of the paddock at Lunan bay, so we were forever fishing out this goat and it was always the same one!”

Carlos

Carlos

She admitted: “they are quite high maintenance compared to other livestock. They are pretty full-on, we are constantly worrying about these goats.”

Goats

Goating up to mischief.

Another character is Che-goatvara, she explained: “he is a little white cashmere with a shock of hair like a toupee and he got put in with the girls for the first time, but poor Che was forever unlucky in love.

“There is quite a strict hierarchy in the goat world but he is a bit of a character with his silly hairdo.”

Che goatvara

Che goatvara

You also have to be careful, as: “goats will always try and jump on your back, it is in their nature, their sole objective in life is to be able to jump up.

“Our coastal land at Lunan bay is perfect for goats, undulating with lots of gorse and broom and docks, which is their favourite thing to eat.

“They increase farm biodiversity and we can harness their unique browsing ability to improve the soil health throughout the whole farm, with the added bonus of their meat and cashmere.”

“They produce nutrient-dense meat, with some analysis showing that it is lower in fat than chicken and venison with very low cholesterol levels.

“The taste is quite unique, the chefs and home customers say there is nothing else that compares to the flavour of goat meat. It definitely has a unique taste, more flavour than beef but not as gamey as lamb or venison.”

You got to be kidding!

 

Love is in the air

During the mating season, the males are put into the fields with the females in mid-September, for six weeks.

Dr McEwan tells us that they have a very odd mating ritual,  she said: “bucks are particularly smelly, and they basically urinate over their beards to try and make themselves more attractive with their own brand of special goaty aftershave.”

She explained:”they curl their lip up like Elvis Presley, tilt their head back in the air to suck in all the pheromones in the air to smell the females.

“They don’t have any teeth in the top of their mouth so they suck the air through with their top lip and make this unique mating call, ‘whop, whop’ to shout for the ladies. A few of our neighbours ask, ‘ what is going on down there?’

“It is quite a spectacle and you need to see it to believe it. I had never ever seen anything like it before.”

Boys with beards.

They also grow asparagus with the season running between May til mid-June, “it has brought so many unexpected benefits, Neil realised that one day there was lots of new birdlife,” she said.

The reason; a perennial plant creates a stable habitat for ground-nesting birds like lapwing, grey partridge and skylarks.

As the spears are cut by hand the ground is not disturbed, and Dr McEwan explained: “we discovered all these new nests, we were pleased this happened because that is one of the main reasons we began nature-friendly farming.”

Harvesting begins at 7am until lunchtime, then it is graded and packed. Some of the asparagus is dispatched that day for local customers or in the early hours of the next morning, to be delivered to Edinburgh and Fife to the chefs there.

Dr McEwan said: “it is quite a full-on operation. We are glad the season is only six weeks, you have got keep cutting, if you miss any spears and allow them to turn into ferns you damage the crop for next year. So once you start, you can’t stop basically.”

Normally their crop is pre-sold to the chefs, and this year with restaurants closed due to the pandemic.

She said, “I had three weeks to find a completely new market, but it actually turned out really well in the end, and we sold 80% more before because everyone was stuck at home and ordering local produce.”

Asparagus: once you start cutting the crop you can't stop.

Asparagus: once you start cutting the crop you can’t stop.

 

Only a small proportion of the herd are used for meat, with the season running between September until January, depending on how slow-growing the goats are.

Dr McEwan explained: “we had a lot of chefs coming on board including Scott Smith, Fhior in Edinburgh, Jamie Scott at The Newport, and Contini’s in Edinburgh and Eusebi in Glasgow.”

They use a small local abattoir, and Edinburgh based chef Paul Wedgwood has been supportive, asking them for offal for goat haggis which he has included on his takeaway menu.

She said: “it sits well with our nose to tail ethos, to respect our animals by using all the parts.

“It is really brilliant to be working with people like that who understand what it is like being a small scale producer.

“The final goat meat delivery of the year is at the end of January but we start again in September.”

lunan bay farm

Goats: Bruce, Che, Bruno, Basil aka the Buck Street Boys. Picture: Lunan Bay Farm

Happy new year

The McEwan’s plan to get their cashmere operation up and running properly in 2021 with the aim of producing the first ball of homegrown yarn entirely made in Scotland.

All goats prepare for winter by growing soft downy fibres underneath the coarser guard hair, which the couple hand-comb out of their coats in spring.

She explained: “the combing process is incorporated into our post-pregnancy pamper session. We keep the goats outside all year round except when they are kidding.

“Then we bring them inside a few weeks before and they stay in until there is enough grass and forage outside. During that period they get their hooves trimmed, cashmere combed out, and any medication they need given to them.”

Part of the goat's post pregnancy pamper routine

Combing the cashmere out, part of the goat’s post-pregnancy pamper routine

The couple are keen to hear from anyone who might be able to help them turn their dream into a reality; turning raw cashmere fibre that they collect on the farm into yarn and knitted products.

Another crop on the farm are honeyberries- a member of the honey-suckle family from Siberia, they look like an elongated blueberry, a cross between a blueberry, blackberry and a raspberry.

They have high levels of antioxidants, and possibly anti-cancer properties. Dr McEwan said, “they can be quite tart so we think they might lend themselves better to be used in cooking by our chef clients but they are the next superfood.”

Also, this year beehives were brought onto the farm for the first time to help pollinate the honeyberries and oilseed rape, to increase the yields for next year.

Dr McEwan said,”we can’t imagine the farm without goats now, it is hard work; every day, all year round, it never stops but you do get a lot of joy from them.”

lunan bay farm

Jillian and Neil McEwan Picture: Lisa Ferguson

Lunan Bay Farm

Myreside Farm,
Inverkeilor,
Angus, DD11 5RL

01241 830 598

 

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Scotland’s Larder: Chris Logan, Brussels Sprouts farmer from East Lothian

About The Author

Catriona Thomson

Catriona is based in the Scottish Borders and works as part of the audiovisual team at the Scotsman but she reviews restaurants for Scotland on Sunday and writes for Scotsman Food and Drink in her spare time.

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