A family farm in Perthshire – named Agriscot Scottish Sheep Farm of the Year in 2018 – produces award-winning Scotch Lamb. Gayle Ritchie meets Neil and Debbie McGowan at Incheoch near Alyth…
Ask farmer Neil McGowan to explain why the lamb produced on his farm tastes quite so divine and he doesn’t hesitate to answer.
“It has a sweet, subtle taste,” muses Neil over coffee in his cosy farmhouse. “It’s not strong – it’s beautiful.”
That’s probably because all the lambs and sheep raised on Incheoch, a 485-hectare upland farm at the foot of Glenisla, are top quality, thanks to a combination of diet, environment and the fact Neil and his wife have acquired decades of experience between them.
They breed Lleyn ewes, and are dedicated to improving the genetics of their flock.
“We’re really proud of the lambs that leave here,” says Neil. “We can trace breeding back more than 40 years and they really are fantastic sheep.”
While Neil’s parents Finlay and Judy are still very active on the farm, his sister Clare and their two teenage kids are also very hands-on.
Neil and his wife Debbie, having met at college, married in 2000 and initially farmed near Kirkmichael and then in the Borders before heading to Glenisla.
The foundation of their sheep business is prime lamb production, but they also sell grass-fed pedigree Lleyn and Texel rams.
In total, there are 1,100 breeding Lleyn ewes and 100 Texels.
“We love the Lleyns because they’re little ewes which are quite easy to look after,” says Neil.
“The mothers are very maternal and prolific; they tend to have two lambs at a time. If you get the nutrition right, you can get a lot of lambs not only in spring but also summer. Everything is born and fattened here before it’s sent off.”
Prime lambs are sold to Woodhead Bros in Turriff for processing but the McGowans also work with a local abattoir and butcher and sell 30-40 of their lambs directly to the public annually in bespoke retail packs.
Artisan butchers Minick make sausages and other cuts of meat for the McGowans, too, selling it as Incheoch Lamb.
As Neil and Debbie head out to feed the sheep, the fluffy creatures come trotting over, full of curiosity, and of course, eyeing the feed buckets.
I’m surprised when the couple reveal they can tell the sheep apart, and even have names for some of them.
It’s lovely that one sheep, blind in one eye, roams happily around, and the McGowans declare they have a soft spot for her.
I find this fondness hard to reconcile with the fact the sheep are, ultimately, killed and eaten – but that’s probably me being a tad naive.
“They’re not just a commodity,” insists Neil. “They’re part of who we are. We love the sheep but we’re realistic about what happens.”
Indeed, he admits he knows a “tasty lamb” when he sees one!
“I’ve got an eye for it!” he laughs. “And when you handle the lamb, you feel its condition.”
The sheep live as natural a life as possible, with minimum human intervention. They live out all year round, enjoying rich, clover-filled pastures in summer and autumn and root crops like kale and turnips in winter, as well as mineral supplements.
“We let them get on with it; there’s much less supervision,” explains Neil. “The sheep have adapted to looking after themselves. It’s a low-stress philosophy!”
Winning the prestigious Sheep Farm of the Year title in 2018 was a huge honour.
The aim of the award – run by AgriScot and Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) and sponsored by Thorntons Solicitors – is to showcase excellence in sheep production in Scotland and to raise the profile of the dedication of the Scottish sheep farmers who produce Scotch Lamb PGI.
In a nutshell, Scotch Lamb PGI, which stands for Protected Geographical Indication, is from specific animals sourced from selected Scottish farms, adopting best practice which includes animal welfare and natural production methods.
So when you see the Scotch Lamb PGI logo, you can be confident the lamb was born, reared and processed in Scotland and had a good life.
“We were up against stiff competition for the award and it’s great recognition of the effort that everyone involved at Incheoch puts into what all Scottish sheep farmers try to do – produce a great product, sensitive to welfare and the environment, in a business that offers a way of life attractive to the next generation,” says Neil.
“The judges looked at good stockmanship, welfare, production methods and technologies and recognised good business.
“Here at Incheoch, and in the sheep farming world, we rely on the rest of the production chain working well – that’s why being a Scotch assured farm producing Scotch Lamb PGI is really helpful.”
The award helped attract holidaymakers, having read about the award, to stay in rental cottages at Incheoch, so the rewards reaped have been far-reaching. When it comes to eating lamb, the McGowans are very open-minded.
“You don’t always have to have lamb roast!” says Neil. “It’s quick and easy to make lamb skewers and in fact there are loads of recipes you can make in under 30 minutes. It’s about getting out of the mindset that lamb is just for Sunday roasts but perceptions do seem to be changing.
“It’s a very versatile meat. Lamb steaks are great cut up and great stir-fried for tacos. Meatballs are fantastic.
“People don’t eat a lot of lamb in Scotland but it’s available everywhere, in supermarkets and butchers, and it’s not that expensive.
“If you’re not sure what to do with lamb, get advice from a butcher or visit scotch kitchen.com.
What’s the best thing about being a sheep farmer, I ask?
Neil reckons it’s seeing a ewe that’s gone into a nice sheltered corner of a field and is happily nuzzling and suckling her new-born lambs.
“They make a beautiful little sound – that’s why I do this job! It’s the promise of a new generation in front of you. That gives you a wonderful feeling.”