A beast unburdened by BSE

They're sane, tame and tender - and coming to a plate near you. As Alison Culliford reports, there's more to buffaloes than mozzarella cheese, and farmers are cashing in

It is close of day on Robert and Alison Clark's Cardiganshire dairy farm and an age-old scene is played out as the herd, full udders dangling, files slowly into the parlour to be milked. If your mind's eye has already coloured the picture with the familiar black-and-white cows you are in for a surprise, because aside from a few remaining Jerseys and Friesians it is buffaloes that are the mainstay of this farm.

Buffalo farming is not as alarming, or as bizarre, as it may sound. These black, lumbering giants with their huge horns and doleful eyes are both gentle and graceful, according to the Clarks, who have spent the past five months teaching them to adapt to a conventional milking machine. Buffaloes are the standard cow of Africa, India, China and Eastern Europe, where they not only provide milk and meat but are also beasts of burden. And of course, as any Italophile knows, their creamy milk is essential for mozzarella di bufalo, which the milk from this buffalo herd is used to make.

However, their relevance for Britain could be more than just another novelty animal to swell the ranks of ostriches, emus and alpacas that have been roaming our fields since BSE. With meat that tastes like beef (and has 33 per cent less cholesterol), and milk production without the history of intense farming that caused our problems in the first place, buffaloes present a pretty sensible answer to the difficulties British farmers face.

Robert Clark is currently one of four British buffalo farmers, two of whom are farming the animals solely for their meat. Indeed, buffaloes have landed on two lucky squares in the game which is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's rules and regulations: if you farm them for meat they are classed as cows and qualify for the beef special premium, whereas you can milk them without needing a quota. It was the latter point that first attracted Robert Clark, as he was looking to sell some of his quota to pay back money borrowed to buy his farm. Then he heard about Robert Palmer, a Warwickshire farmer who had first imported buffaloes from Romania five years ago.

Accompanied by Mr Palmer and a Romanian state vet, the Clarks visited the collective farms where the buffaloes came from. They found a strange dichotomy between modern and archaic farming practices. "We went in May, and people were out in the fields hoeing maize by hand. Water is still drawn from a well. Yet there are aeroplanes and helicopters on all the state farms for crop-spraying. Each family on a collective has its own two or three buffaloes and their calves, so they are virtually family pets. You see them walking home through the village at the end of the day - they all know where to go."

The herd of 30 animals was delivered in August, and the first calves arrived two days later. "That wasn't part of the deal," Mr Clark laughs. "They weren't meant to calve until October." Their gestation is a month longer than a cow's, but "everything with the buffalo is that much slower". The calves, already with their curved horns, jostle to meet us, tugging at coat sleeves and exploring my pockets with their tongues. Having been bottle-fed, they are very tame, but then so are the mothers, who are overly keen to thrust their great wet noses into your face. "Feel their tongues," says Mr Clark. "They are smooth, not rough like a Friesian's. The bigger buffaloes do bully the smaller ones sometimes, but on the whole they are mellow. This is Brasof [the animals are all named after Romanian towns and villages]. She's the tamest of all - you could ride her."

Mrs Clark nods in agreement. "They are also surprisingly agile. In the very cold weather, when there was a film of ice in the yard, they were able to skate on the ice - not like a cow, which would panic and its legs would go everywhere."

Learning about their different habits and characteristics has been fascinating, but at times exhausting for the Clarks. Milking is still a time-consuming affair for a disappointingly small yield. "They are reluctant to let the milk down, so you have to coax them and make them feel relaxed," Mr Clark explains. He bashfully admits that he sings to them, but this technique seems to pay off.

In the milking parlour we taste some of the milk. It is deliciously creamy and, with 7.5 per cent fat and 4 per cent protein, ideal for cheese-making. Currently the Clarks' milk is driven weekly to an Italian dairy in London, where it is made into mozzarella. The couple has plans to produce beef from suckler calves as well as starting their own dairy on the farm to make hard cheese and mozzarella - once they have overcome the stumbling block of having to mould the cheese by hand in liquid at a blistering 65 degrees.

There is something of the pioneer about Robert Clark. Who knows, perhaps in 20 years' time our familiar fields of Friesians will have been supplanted by herds of buffaloes peacefully chewing their cud till the cows come home.

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