Meet the Scottish cheesemakers putting calf welfare first

At Rainton Farm in southwest Scotland, the couple behind The Ethical Dairy believe they’ve found a more compassionate way to produce their range of cheeses.

By Nora Wallaya
Published 8 Jun 2022, 15:00 BST
David and Wilma Finlay are the owners of The Ethical Dairy in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.

David and Wilma Finlay are the owners of The Ethical Dairy in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.

Photograph by Ian Findlay

On a quiet day, peaceful, meadowy Rainton Farm might seem an unlikely hotbed of business innovation — but it’s here that cheesemaker Wilma Finlay had a lightbulb moment. It was sparked by a common question she was asked while leading her farm tours, mostly by mums with young children in tow. Why were the newborn calves kept in a different shed to their mothers?

The answer? Separating the cow from her calf enables dairy farmers to take most, or even all, of the mother’s milk, to be sold for human consumption. It’s one of the standard practices used in conventional, intensive agriculture, and one that was once used at Rainton Farm. “Like my visitors the separation bothered me too, when I first arrived at Rainton in 1994,” says Wilma, who, alongside her farming husband David, runs their businesses. “At the time, Rainton was a non-intensive farm, but to me back then, it felt like an intensive one,” she says.

Confronting the issue, they decided to trial what they believed to be a more ethical approach — one now known as the ‘cow-with-calf’ method. While the change was thought to benefit the welfare of her livestock, it was a risk that could have potentially led to revenue losses. But, through determination — “and arrogance”, as Wilma puts it — she feels they've been able to demonstrate the method’s viability, and six years later, Wilma says the cows are producing more milk than ever before — a fact she credits to their happier living environment.

“Each of our cows will produce around 25 litres a day. When the cow and calf were kept apart, we gave the calf five litres while keeping 20 for us to sell,” she explains. “When we allowed them to stay together, the calf drank 20 litres while we were left with five to sell. Now, we’ve reached a middle ground — the calf drinks 15, and we take 10.”

The cow-with-calf method of dairy production has proved a success at Rainton Farm.

Photograph by Ian Findlay

David’s family have farmed at Rainton since the 1920s, although cheese has been produced at the 830-acre farm, on-and-off, since 1860. The Ethical Dairy’s current offering includes Rainton Tomme, a nutty, Alpine-style variety; Laganory, a tangy, hard, farmhouse cheese; and the rich Fleet Valley Blue. All its cheeses are crafted using vegetarian rennet, and all are made with milk from the farm’s 125-strong herd of dual purpose cross bred cows, which produce over 600,000 litres a year.

As well as encouraging the change in the farm’s method of milk production, Wilma also spearheaded a move into ice cream-making with Cream o’ Galloway. It launched at the Royal Highland Show in 1994 and has its own site nearby, complete with an ice cream parlour, offering regular flavours as well as more experimental options, such as Scottish tablet, and whisky, honey and oatmeal.

Across the two sites are events open to curious visitors, from farm tours to ice cream- and cheese-making workshops, plus wildlife-spotting activities for children such as pond-dipping and hedgerow safaris. It’s initiatives such as these that saw Wilma awarded an MBE in 2006, for her contribution to the Scottish tourism industry.

As for its core product, Wilma offers up this serving suggestion: “My favourite way to enjoy our cheese is nibbling the Fleet Valley Blue alongside a glass of elderberry wine,” says Wilma. “The wine is made by my sister-in-law, who uses strawberries, raspberries and oak leaves to add local flavours to her wines.”

As is so often the case, with the Finlays, family comes first.

The Ethical Dairy’s produces a range of local cheeses including Rainton Tomme, a nutty, Alpine-style variety; Laganory, a tangy, hard, farmhouse cheese; and the rich Fleet Valley Blue. 

Photograph by Ian Findlay

Three more local favourites

1. Ecclefechan tart: Also known as a border tart, this buttery treat is studded with dried fruit and nuts and made fragrant with cinnamon and lemon peel. It’s traditionally enjoyed during Hogmanay and can be found at farm shops in the village of the same name.

2. Lowland single-malt whisky: The Annandale Distillery reopened in 2013 after a 90-year closure. As a nod to its history, the distillery still produces its famous peated, smoky whisky, the Man O’Sword. Its Man O’ Words, on the other hand, is fruity and unpeated.

3. Ayrshire new potatoes: Among the first to be pulled from the earth in Scotland starting in May, these earlies are PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) certified. Firm yet creamy, they’re ideal boiled and are an earthy, nutty addition to salads.

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