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Hill lambs could be a premium product

Sheep breeder Richard Briggs - Photo: Hans J Marter/ShetNews

MORE Shetland hill lambs could achieve premium prices in the restaurant trade and among food lovers if the native breed is marketed better, it was claimed this week.

As many as 20,000 lambs coming off the hills this autumn are in danger of being culled after its main market in Italy is said to have collapsed.

This week, just a few days after the hugely successful Shetland Food Fair, sheep breeder Richard Briggs said there was no reason why a lucrative market for the superior meat of these animals couldn’t be built elsewhere.

He said the local abattoir was too small to handle all of the animals coming off the hills during a short three-week spell in autumn.

Briggs believes there needed to be a committed partner on the Scottish mainland interested in developing niche markets.

However, to keep the value of the animals, it was vital to have them certified as ‘protected designation of origin’ (PDO) and market them as a speciality, born, raised and slaughtered in Shetland.

“I recognise the quality of the meat that is in these sheep, and my job is to get it to somebody’s kitchen without spoiling it and with the traceability that next year they can get the same.

“As soon as it hits the mainstream trade its provenance is lost.”

Briggs, who has been selling native Shetland lamb directly to customers for the last 1o years and is now hoping to increase volumes by selling through the Fresh Food Express website, was supported in his views by food writer and healthy eating campaigner Wendy Barrie.

During a visit to Briggs’ croft in South Nesting, Barrie said she saw huge potential for crofters to market Shetland hill lambs as a premium product.

“I think there is a real opportunity here for more crofters. Richard has done a lot of hard work here; there is definitely a demand, and I believe we can increase that demand.

“I think the day will come when more crofters, who go for the cross-bred right now, realise that native Shetland lamb has got a value and is the way to go.”

This Shetland Seaweed Lamb Cutlets were grilled and served with a juicy Bridie filled with diced gigot that had been braised with organic Porter beer and garden vegetables - Photo: Wendy Barrie

Barrie published the Scottish Food Guide which lists places where to eat the best of local produce. She also leads the Ark of Taste in Scotland, a slow food project that promotes heritage breeds and biodiversity.

“The native Shetland breed totally fits into this Ark of Taste. This is a win-win situation and we now need to work collaboratively to send out this message to the consumer and to chefs,” she said.

Chairman of the local NFU, Jim Nicolson, agreed that marketing more native lamb in this fashion could help to avoid future crisis, but he was sceptical as to the numbers involved.

Currently the NFU is looking at alternative markets for the surplus lambs and it hopes that the local council and the health board may take some more for school and hospital meals.

A high percentage would also be slaughtered and put into people’s freezers, he said, while some have been shipped for export.

“There is no silver bullet for this,” he said. “There are various possibilities, and some of these might never come to fruition.”

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