ONE OF the leading breeders of Aberdeen-Angus in the UK, William (Willie) Robertson, owner of the Nightingale herd at Bishampton, Pershore, Worcestershire, has died at the age of 88 following a short illness.

Mr Robertson was widely recognised for his deep practical knowledge and understanding of the principles of cattle breeding which, with his late wife, Rita, and daughters, Angela and Catriona, he put in to practice in building up the Nightingale herd in to one of the most successful herds in the breed.

He is credited with the shrewd selection of foundation females for the herd from Canada in 1974 at a time when the breed was struggling to shake off the legacy of the smaller compact Aberdeen-Angus of the 1950s and 1960s to breed a larger-framed, quicker-growing animal more in tune with modern commercial demand.

The four foundation females from the Black Browe, Rivercrest and Corvallis herds in Alberta, followed by a series of influential Canadian-bred sires, quickly catapulted the Nightingale herd in to the top echelons of the Aberdeen-Angus breed, where it has remained for the past 45 years.

A visit to Canada in the spring of 1974 completely changed his perceptions of cattle breeding and he came home convinced that Canada had the answer to the breed’s problems in the UK.

“It was obvious that larger-framed cattle were required and when the opportunity to import from Canada came along, I gladly took it,” he said.

But it wasn’t size at any cost and the clear emphasis was on breeding efficient cattle with good feed conversion, easy fleshing, low maintenance costs and the ability to achieve superior performance on grass and conserved fodder.

He took the view early on that to make real genetic progress you have to narrow down breeding objectives to two or three characteristics and go all out to improve them, even if sacrifices have to be made to achieve that goal.

“You will never get there trying to breed the complete animal,” he said. “We achieved a larger frame and then concentrated on improving muscling.”

It is recognised that Mr Robertson made a better job than most in his stock selections from Canada and this is reflected in the number of influential Nightingale-bred stock bulls which found their way into leading pedigree and commercial herds throughout the country.

By 2004, 26 females and 18 bulls had been imported from Canada, as well as embryos and semen. Nightingale bulls soon earned a well-deserved reputation for improving the EBVs of cattle in herds where they were used and a stream of regular buyers, both beef and dairy herds, were regularly beating a path to Nightingale to buy stock bulls, unpushed at 12-15 months of age.

Very few bulls have been sold at auction over the years and cows in the herd have proved prolific breeders with many going on to breed until the age of 15.

A notable achievement was replacing 25 Charolais bulls in one large-scale suckler herd with 25 Nightingale Aberdeen-Angus bulls while another regular customer bought 10 bulls in five years.

When cattle from the herd make a rare appearance in the sale or show ring, they can be counted on to make an impact. In the early days, bulls figured in the championship line-up at the Perth bull sales and sold for up to 12,500gns. A championship was won at the Royal Show and Nightingale-bred cattle carried off championships at the Royal Highland and Royal Dublin shows.

The influence of Nightingale cattle has permeated throughput the breed with Newhouse, Kinermony, Blelack, Newcairnie, Penguin, Skaill, Wedderlie, Tofts, Cardona and the late Queen Mother’s Castle of Mey herd among the leading herds which have used Nightingale sires as stock bulls over the years.

Three ET sons of Ankonian Elixir 100, Netherallan Peter Pershore E052 (at Blelack and Shadwell), Netherallan Paul Pershore E053 (at Arms) and Nightingale Poundman C183 (at Nightingale) - the first from Nightingale Pride of Pershore E052 and the other two from her full sister, Nightingale Pride of Pershore S44, have made a particularly strong impact in more recent years.

Semen has also been exported all over the world, particularly to Brazil and Australia and, in a role reversal, a daughter of a Nightingale bull, BCC Miss Hottie 31Z, was a champion in Alberta in 2013.

The herd has been weight recorded since 1975 and all calves are scanned for muscle depth, backfat and rump fat for Breedplan recording.

Mr Robertson’s immense contribution to the Aberdeen-Angus breed was recognised last year when he was presented with the Aberdeen-Angus Cattle Society’s president’s award for outstanding service to the breed.

Born on the family farm at Rannoch in West Perthshire, Mr Robertson farmed with his father and brother at Garrique, near Stirling, where he dabbled (his own description) in Aberdeen-Angus. He got himself in to the export trade in its hey-day with the late exporter, Moubray Alexander, and spent six months in Argentina in 1966-67 working with the Waldman family’s renowned Los Montes herd helping to look after 3000 cows, all served by AI.

After his father died and the family partnership was split up, Mr Robertson decided to look for something more amenable than the high-lying farm of Garrique which eventually led him to the 200-acre all-grass Nightingale Farm right in the heart of the 'Garden of England' in the idyllic Vale of Evesham.

The herd is now run by Angela while Catriona and her husband, Alex Sutherland, have their own Abberton herd nearby. Mr Robertson was pre-deceased in 2012 by his wife, Rita, who was a keen judge of cattle and played a large part in the management of the herd and development of the breeding programme.