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By David Porter

One of the north-east’s leading beef producers, with a reputation of perfection in the breeding and feeding of cattle, has died at the age of 89.

George Ritch
George Ritch

Orkney-born George Ritch moved with his parents from Bankhead, Dounby, to East Fingask, Oldmeldrum, in 1944 at the age of 13 and following his father’s death in 1955 expanded the family’s farming business from 240 acres of rented land to 900 acres owned at present.

He was instrumental in persuading his father to make the move from Orkney after being impressed with a field of wheat when viewing East Fingask, which is recognised as one of the best and most fertile farms in the area.

But his real passion was beef cattle where his judgement in the selection of stock was second-to-none.

“Farming and finishing beef cattle in particular was his life and he was active on the farm right up to the day of his death when he helped me to tag some calves, visited one of our other farms to check some cattle and then came home to wash his car, when he started feeling unwell,” said his son and farming partner, Willie.

“The end was sudden although he knew, and we knew, he had a lurking aneurism.”

Willie admits to living in awe of his father’s natural skills in the selection and identification of stock.

“Dad could identify every animal just by looking at it. He had a photographic memory - it was just like recognising people – while I always have to check the eartags of animals to be sure” said Willie.

This was demonstrated in his young farmers’ days when he needed no notes when giving reasons in stockjudging competitions.

Mr Ritch was a congenial but private man who lived for his farming and liked nothing better than going round the marts meeting his farming friends and buying store cattle for finishing.

In earlier years, he was a regular at ANM marts such as Huntly, Aboyne, Dufftown, Tomintoul and Elgin – all now closed – and in more recent years at Thainstone, as well as having cattle sent to him from Orkney.

Christmas 1960 was a worrying time for farmers when foot-and-mouth disease struck.

Mr Ritch avoided the fate of some neighbours by exercising the strictest controls to avoid infection and thus the compulsory slaughter of all his stock, including all provisions being left at the end of the farm road by the grocers’ van.

The year 1975 was a turning point when the opportunity arose to buy East Fingask as sitting tenant.

With rampant inflation, borrowing was soon paid off and advantage was taken of the Farm and Horticultural Development Scheme (FHDS) to build new silage pits and cattle courts.

It was through his interest in trading at the marts that he was persuaded, although he was not a committee man, to become a director, and later chairman, of Aberdeen and Northern Marts (now ANM Group) where his sound judgement and respect in which he was held resulted in him topping the poll every time he had to stand for re-election.

He piloted ANM through the difficult times of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease which resulted in some marts having to be closed.

He was a great believer in the deadweight system of marketing and all his finished cattle for many years went to the Portlethen abattoir when it was owned by William Donald, and later to Inverurie Scotch Meat and Scotch Premier Meat.

Even although selling deadweight, all cattle leaving the farm were clipped.

He was keen on showing and was a regular winner in the commercial cattle classes at the Ellon and New Deer shows and at the old Aberdeen Fatstock Show.

Deadweight selling gave him a strong appreciation of the salient points of a beef animal and he gave up showing when the first Limousin was awarded a championship.

“He just felt that beef animals should be judged by their top line where the most expensive cuts are to be found rather than by the size of their backside” said Willie.

Following the BSE crisis in 1995, and increased difficulty in sourcing Aberdeen-Angus store cattle of the quality he demanded and dissatisfaction with continental types for grazing, he was encouraged by Willie to start breeding their own cattle rather than being so dependent on the store market.

It also meant making better use of grass and reducing the dependence on barley for finishing cattle.

Today their herd of Aberdeen-Angus has grown to 170 cows.

If he had any doubts about this move, they were squashed in the year 2000 when he made a visit to Argentina and came home overwhelmed by the large herds of Aberdeen-Angus grazing the pampas and determined this was the way ahead.

It was a big move to uproot in Orkney and move to Aberdeenshire although many farmers have done it over the years.

Mr Ritch used to recall the flitting to Aberdeenshire trailing a henhouse full of hens behind the car and trying to negotiate the road network where all signposts had been removed in case of a wartime invasion.

“It was traumatic for the hens and they stopped laying eggs for weeks,” Mr Ritch recalled.

His father was glad to get away from Orkney because of the wartime restrictions and virtual military take-over of the island.

But when he got to East Fingask he discovered a 40 acre field had been requisitioned by the RAF as a reserve landing place for aircraft in the event of Dyce being bombed.

The field had to be kept in grass but it could be grazed.

The previous tenant of the farm had gone bankrupt and the farm was a mess of stringweeds.

Double ploughing, firstly shallow with a horse and followed more deeply with a tractor, followed by heavy grazing, solved the problem but left Mr Ritch strongly averse to organic farming.

Mr Ritch was much sought after as a judge having judged the commercial cattle classes at the Royal Highland Show and the interbreed beef competition at Turriff Show and was always keen to welcome visits to the farm from young farmers’ clubs and the North East Aberdeen-Angus Club, where Willie is a past-chairman.

East Fingask was also the venue for one of the Royal Northern Agricultural Society’s crop events.

Mr Ritch was predeceased by his wife, Mary, a doctor, in 1988 and is survived by Willie and his daughter, Kathleen Donald, also a doctor, and four grandchildren, as well as his sister, Jeanie.

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