Nothing woolly about lessons in farm craft

8th October 2010 at 01:00
Pupils flocked to an open day to learn about animal husbandry, butchery and cookery

When it comes to a day down on the farm, north-east girls are no slackers in the fashion stakes.

It might have been a day to get down and dirty among the hay bales and tractors, but it was also an occasion when wellingtons came into their own. It was rainy and sometimes muddy outside, but the parade of wellies brightened everyone's day: pink boots, floral boots, Union Jack boots, and even proper green wellies with pom-poms dangling on strings.

This is the Science of Farming and the Countryside Day, organised by the Royal Northern Countryside Initiative for 200 fifth and sixth years at the Scottish Agricultural College at Craibstone Estate in Aberdeen.

The RNCI promotes awareness of farming and the working countryside to children and their teachers. The aim is to show how school subjects such as chemistry, physics and home economics connect with the industry and highlight courses available at the SAC. There are hands-on sessions on all these subjects and in business education, biology and geography, showing their links with agriculture.

The girls from home economics at Portlethen Academy admit they have been slightly apprehensive about the butchery session with a lamb carcass. But once butcher Paul Smith gets underway, the girls are absorbed and question him intently throughout his demonstration.

Five minutes beforehand, they were outside petting lambs in a pen, so there is no mistaking where roast lamb comes from - happily not from these particular lambs on this occasion.

Farmer Elaine Booth, from the Scottish Agricultural College, shows the girls round the sheep pen and explains how each animal has a passport that helps track it during its lifetime.

"You can see all of these have ear tags. It's very important that we can trace each animal from birth to death, so that in the event of a disease outbreak among animals we can trace where the problem is," she says.

Back inside, and Anne Wyness, a home economics teacher from Meldrum Academy, gives a brief and comprehensive account of food hygiene. "Bad bacteria are called pathogenic bacteria. Pathogenic bacteria cause food poisoning," she begins, after rigorous hand washing and inspection under a light box.

The girls are intrigued as master butcher Paul Smith begins cutting up a half-lamb. No one is in the slightest bit fazed as he slams a cleaver through the carcass, chops off lamb shanks, expertly carves his way through the animal, stacking up all the different cuts on silver trays.

The girls interrogate him while he is working.

"Do you cut up cows as well?" asks one.

"Yip," he says.

"And pigs?"


"Chickens?" says another.

"Yes and zebra, camel, kangaroo," he tells them, and he is not kidding.

His butcher's at Skene has an exotic range on offer: "I've got camel, zebra, kangaroo, alligator in stock just now," he says later. He also imports python steaks, snails, frogs' legs, reindeer, wild boar, ostrich and moose from Sweden.

Today it is strictly sheep, though, and afterwards Mrs Wyness gives the girls some useful tips about food preparation.

"We should be trying to cut the amount of salt in our diet. Too much salt raises high blood pressure and can lead to strokes and heart disease. There's lots of different flavourings we can add instead of salt," she says.

"Seventy-five per cent of the salt in your diet comes from processed ready-made foods. So it's beneficial to you if you know how to prepare and cook foods from fresh, especially for reducing salt. So there's lemon juice, mustard, curry powder, spices, garlic, herbs to reduce salt in the diet."

Mr Smith says later that he is delighted the girls are so interested. "The modern housewife doesn't know how to cook. Start them young and teach them and hopefully they will go home and have a go at cooking. We can see there's an age group of parents - they don't cook," he says.

Kara Mitchell, 17, is in sixth year, studying Advanced Higher health and food technology at Portlethen Academy, and wants to be a primary school teacher or work in the food technology field after school.

Kara was in the front row during the butchery session: "I was kind of scared of coming. I thought it would be alive and have a head and stuff. But it was all right," she says. "I was fascinated."

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