When Vexour Garth, a one-ton British bull, strode into the ring at the Stirling Bull Sale last week, British beef farmers held their breath for one of the biggest sales of the year. They weren't disappointed. The 19-month-old Charolais sold for £105,000 – a world record for the breed and a price tag that puts him on a par with a new Porsche 911.
In time, it might look like a bargain. A boom in the global demand for meat has led to a swell of confidence among livestock farmers, fuelling a steady increase in the sums breeders are willing to spend on top quality sires from which to breed the next generation. Vexour Garth was bought by a private company in the US, which has effectively purchased the right to sell his genetic material all over the world.
Sheep prices are also breaking records. Two weeks ago, a blackface lamb sold for £90,000 at an auction in Perthshire. Another lamb from the same bloodline sold for £60,000. Even sheepdogs are being sold at unprecedented prices in the hope of harnessing the genes of the best. Last week, Marchup Midge, the pup of a former World Sheepdog Trials champion, fetched a record £8,400.
Experts say there has rarely been a better time to invest. "Getting access to top quality genetics is something cattle farmers are willing to invest in," said Alasdair Houston, chairman of the British Charolais Cattle Society. "I understand the plan is for Vexour Garth to stay in the UK and have semen taken for export. That animal shows that there is real confidence in the traditional British cattle breeds and genetic qualities."
In the UK, livestock farmers are gradually emerging from the privations of the BSE and foot-and-mouth eras. Since EU restrictions on British beef exports were dropped in 2006, 50 new countries have opened up to sales. Nations such as China and Brazil are increasing meat consumption, leading to a surge in worldwide demand.
"Livestock price records don't tumble particularly often," said Christopher Dodds, of the Livestock Auctioneers Association. "Farmers have had some very challenging financial times, but in recent years things have begun to look better. There is a demand for red meat in the wider world like there hasn't been before.
"Breeders of sheep and cattle will be thinking about reinvesting in the genetic pool of their herd and stock."
Breeders say that the prestige of the UK breeding stock could mean British farmers benefiting from selling the genetic material of their best specimens overseas. A single dose of semen from a top bull can fetch £75, Mr Houston said. If successful, Vexour Garth could produce up to a million doses in his lifetime for sale across the world.
The genetic material that produced the record-breaking sheepdog Marchup Midge is available to buy for £500 a dose from dealer Mike Northwood. "They come from all over the world, Australia, America, to buy British stock," said Mr Northwood, whose company Come-Bye markets the frozen semen of dozens of award-winning sheepdogs – including Marchip Midge's sire, Roy.
While it has been a difficult year for UK agriculture, with poor crop harvests driving up the price of animal feed, livestock farmers at least at are looking beyond the short-term, seasonal set-back.
"Global demand for meat is outstripping global supply," said Peter Hardwick, head of trade development at the English Beef and Lamb Executive. "There has been an increase in consumption, particularly in the developing world and a change in demographic in some of those countries. These demographic shifts are affecting the ability of these countries to supply themselves, meaning that EU countries have an opportunity to fill the gap."
The Perthshire lamb
£90,000 - World record price paid for a Blackface lamb in Scotland two weeks ago
A 12-month-old blackface lamb – offspring of a £30,000 Aitkenhead ram and a £28,000 Midlock ewe – was sold for £90,000 on 15 October by Ian Hunter, from Muthill, Perthshire, at Dalmally in Argyll and Bute. Its twin was sold for £60,000 at the same sale.
The Lancashire sheepdog
£8,400 - Marchup Midge, sold in Skipton on Friday for a world record price
Marchup Midge, an 18-month-old sheepdog bitch, fetched a record 8,000 guineas when Shaun Richards, from Burnley, sold her at Skipton Auction Mart last week. Midge’s father, Roy, was 2008 World Sheep Dog Trial champion.
The Surrey bull
£105,000 - Charolais bull, sold for a new breed record in Stirling last week
Vexour Garth, a 19-month-old home-bred Charolais bull tracing his bloodline back to the great Maerdy Tally was sold for a record £105,000 by Jan Boomaars, from Woldingham, Surrey, last week. The US Livestock Capital Partnership was the purchaser.
Beast buys: record prices
Red Tibetan mastiff:
Name: Hong Dong (2011)
Age: 11 months
Sold by: Lu Liang
Sold to: Multimillionaire coal baron
Name: Green Monkey (2006)
Age: 2 years
Sold by: Randy Hartley/Dean De Renzo
Sold to: John Magnier, stud owner
Name: Fabio (2012)
Age: 17 months
Sold by: Glyn Vaughan
Sold to: Alan Jenkinson, Cumbria