Make sure you buy your salmon from Scotland for a real treat

ENOUGH! We do not want any more rain. The ground is very wet, no chance of turning any animals out and we are in May.

This is now a very late spring, after the false dawn of March and the mini-summer we enjoyed, which now seems a very long time ago indeed. It was inevitable that the dry spell would break, and that when it did we would be in for some re-balance, and several inches in April has gone a long way to doing that.

The trouble is that when these fronts come rolling in from the Atlantic, the weather pattern can just as easily become stuck, and the rain just keeps coming. I know that farmers are never happy with the weather, but what we like is moderation; a very rare commodity these days. Lorayne can’t even cut the lawn, and I really do not want to be forced to buy flotation tyres for the lawn-mower!

The cows are very happy indoors, looking out at us getting wet on a daily basis, tendering to their every need. The heifers are almost all in too, watching as another load of feed and straw arrives, whilst the grass grows outside.

This weather is prolonging the spring, the cool wet weather feeding the blossom, and the woods (which are affected the least by heavy rain), really are a picture of vivid blue now.

We are putting a dividing wall in our silage clamp; not a big job given that it is the one we removed about eight years ago! With fewer cows, we now need to manage our silage clamps rather better than is possible with a silage face which was made the right size for 700 cows. Putting the dividing wall back in will cut the face by half, and we can then cut any waste or deterioration to an absolute minimum.

Dairy Crest’s woes were mentioned in this column last week, losing the Tesco contract and shutting two bottling factories. Last week, the milk processing company announced an 8 per cent cut in the milk price paid to farmers; a cut of 2p per litre as from the first of May. Just as we have always known, dairy processors in the liquid milk market, continue to compete for business, looking for growth, but doing that by under-cutting each other, and then deducting it from the farmer. This move by Dairy Crest, which will undoubtedly be followed by the other processors, was announced four days before it took place, no negotiation or agreement with the farmers; farmers who will need to serve a 12 month notice before they can leave to supply someone else. That is why milk contracts need to change.

I spent two days up in Scotland last week with the Farm Animal Welfare Committee (FAWC), looking at the welfare of farmed fish. We were in Argyll, which not only has had seven feet of rain in the last 12 months (!), but has more coastline than France. We visited farms on Loch Fyne, Loch Linnhe, and Loch Awe. The world production of farmed fish is 1.5 million tonnes per annum, and Scotland produces 10 per cent of that (150,000 tonnes). Norway is by far the biggest producer at 1 million tonnes per annum, but also owns 95% of the Scottish fish farming industry. Salmon is of course the most farmed fish, but we also visited trout farms and saw halibut being grown for the market.

The fish farming industry has certainly suffered a great deal of criticism over the years, especially from environmentalist pressure groups, but also some criticism from the welfare lobby. Fish have only been farmed for 40 years, and it is therefore a very young industry, and 20 years ago, fish were not seen by many as sentient beings, and welfare was not a big issue. The hunter gatherer approach of the fisherman at sea has no welfare constraints, or indeed the lone fisherman with a rod. Fish farming is different, highly visible, regulated, inspected, monitored, and very much on the back foot; working hard and keen to establish a good reputation for the industry.

There are many comparisons with terrestrial farming (I now see myself as a terrestrial farmer!). Little credit for the massive amount of work done on environmental improvements, as once you get a bad name, it takes aeons to remove it. Massive capital costs, and rising running costs, particularly feed and fuel; a volatile market, which returns very thin margins on a large turn-over. Retailers leading the way, offering contracts to farmers in return for enhanced environmental and welfare standards. Currently those retail prices are below the booming market, but the safety of stability and a guarantee of supply out weigh that for even the biggest producers; a lesson that dairy farmers are learning slowly.

We were two groups within FAWC on the visit, the fish group who were looking at the whole operation, and the welfare at killing group; we were looking at the whole operation too, but with particular attention to how the fish were transported, handled, and their welfare at slaughter. We are of course looking at all species, and fish are also in the remit, which shows how fish farming is now part of the overall picture and not seen as different or not related to main stream agriculture. We did have experts who know the industry intimately with us, including an RSPCA expert; the RSPCA have codes and welfare standards for their farmed fish sold under the ‘Freedom Foods’ label.

The largest farm we visited was bringing in 45 tonnes of fish a day to the processing plant, using a £45m ‘well boat’, which is a vessel with two large wells or tanks, where the fish are held. The boat draws up alongside one of the cages out at sea where the fish are farmed in uniform batches, and ready for harvest at about 4-5kg (a 10lb salmon); automatically fed, which allows the stockmen to concentrate on their welfare and maintain the equipment. A large suction pipe is used to draw them into the boat; this two-foot diameter pipe allows the fish to swim into the boat and causes very little stress. The journey to the plant needs to be carried out with great care, making sure the fish are not subjected to too much movement, using sea water flowing through the wells to provide oxygen, but as the boat travels into restricted areas near the shore, the wells must be sealed to prevent any environmental damage from the fish such as sea lice or eggs, and any other problems which could be spread by poor bio-security; Oxygen must then be pumped into the water and CO2 stripped out. At the harbour, the fish were pumped from the boat, about 200m into the plant, where they were stunned, slaughtered, gutted and packed in ice; providing very fresh fish for same day delivery where needed. Huge improvements have been made in all these areas, but there are still things which can and will be improved further.

We also visited a breeding farm, providing eggs and young fish to commercial fish-farms in the area and indeed all over the world (Norway, Chile etc.), and the highlight of the visit for me was looking at thousands of 30lb salmon, a metre in length, swimming in very large tanks, leaping high into the air. These were mature four year old salmon kept for their eggs; on average 17,000 of them per fish. With ten generations of salmon genetics since commercial farming started 40 years ago, growth rates, aggression, and other traits which can be improved with domestication and farming, are allowing huge potential for the future in this young industry. Good welfare and correct feeding of high quality food (at £1000/t!) ensures that Scottish salmon is a premium product in the market. Feed high in oil and poor handling and welfare will affect the meat greatly, making it flaky and without structure; a disappointment rather than a treat.

If you do not want to be disappointed when you buy salmon; make sure it’s from Scotland.

Gwyn Jones