Kings of the cattle – the Chillingham herd in Norhumberland
PUBLISHED: 01:15 05 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:00 20 February 2013
In idyllic medieval parkland in deepest Northumberland Chillingham's unique wild cattle offer a remarkable window on the past
Deep in the heart of rural Northumberland two of the rarest animals in the world are squaring up for a fight.
At 300kg of solid beef, bone and bad attitude, a Chillingham bull can do a lot of damage, but these two are only fooling around. They clash heads, locking horns in a primitive test of strength, sinews straining, eyeballs rolling, their hooves pawing at the dusty ground for purchase.
Then, suddenly as the confrontation began, its over, the two young bulls breaking apart, backing off a few steps, then each turning away and nonchalantly pulling at clumps of grass, as if nothing has happened.
Nearby, the king bull is paying no attention to the rumpus, but lots of attention to a shaggy white cow, which is playing hard to get.
As king of the cattle, hes got exclusive breeding rights, and for the two or three years of his reign he will likely sire all calves born to the herd. Eventually, he will be overthrown by a fitter, stronger rival, perhaps one of the two young bulls weve just watched, but for now the upstarts can only spar among themselves, developing their strength and fighting technique for the day when they can challenge the king.
Almost unique among the worlds 1.2 billion cattle, Chillinghams white herd live a life virtually free of human intervention, save for a little supplementary hay in winter. They are not subject to culling, selective breeding or veterinary medicine, and offer a fascinating insight into how cattle may have lived when they roamed the wild forests of the north, centuries before domestication.
Professor Stephen Hall, a trustee of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, which owns and manages the cattle and their home in Chillingham Park, has been studying the habits of the herd since 1979.
He is professor of animal science of the University of Lincoln, and says the cattle offer the opportunity to study all sorts of questions about breeding and social behaviour. Its possible for us to look at how cattle would live their lives if left to themselves. They adopt a social system which is the right one for them, he says.
One of the popular myths about the Chillingham cattle is that they are the direct descendants of the auroch, the original wild ox. Aurochs certainly lived in this part of the world - only recently a remarkably well-preserved 7,500 year old auroch skull was unearthed at a quarry near Humshaugh in the North Tyne valley.
But Professor Hall points out that the Chillingham cattle are much smaller than the auroch, which stood six feet tall at the shoulder. Aurochs had died out in Britain by 1500 BC, and a direct lineage to the Chillingham cattle seems unlikely.
Professor Hall believes a more plausible story is that they are descended from medieval husbanded cattle, impounded following the Enclosure Act of the early 13th century, to provide a ready source of meat and avoid the depredations of raiding Scots.
Visiting Chillingham Park, its easy to believe that the cattle have been here for nearly 800 years. Its an idyllic, romantic, medieval parkland, with huge oaks dating from 18th century landscaping, and even more ancient alders lining the streams which bisect the meadows.
Until 1972, the cattle were owned by the family of the Earls of Tankerville, and on occasion were subjected to hunting for sport, most notably in 1872 when the Prince of Wales visited and shot the king bull.
But hunting ceased years ago, and today the animals are less aggressive than in the past, although Richard Marsh, the parks warden, has had one or two close shaves with badly behaved young bulls.
Detailed records of the herds size and social structure have been kept ever since Charles Darwin visited in 1862, and Professor Hall has built on this data with genetic research which has revealed a remarkable degree of genetic uniformity among the cattle. Its been said that they are probably the most inbred mammal in the world, and could accurately be described as near clones of one another.
Such inbreeding is hardly surprising, given the centuries of isolation, and the occasional genetic bottlenecks, such as when the harsh winter of 1947 reduced the herd to only 13 animals (thankfully the cattle survived the harsh winter just past in good health). What is more surprising is that the animals seem to have suffered no ill effects from inbreeding.
It looks as though the inbreeding has been so gradual that potentially harmful recessive genes have been purged, suggests Professor Hall.
To guard against the danger of a catastrophic disease outbreak, a small secondary herd is kept in northern Scotland, but at present the main herd is doing very well, with 90 animals, the largest number since records began.
The biggest challenge facing the Association is maintaining a viable herd size without damaging the botanically important grassland by overgrazing. This place is a conservation gem, says Professor Hall.We want to keep botanical diversity on the sward, but we also want to keep an adequately large herd. There are only 15 to 20 proven breeding cows at present.
Between Easter and October warden Richard Marsh leads guided walks to visit the herd and observe their natural behaviour. If you think looking at cows seems an unlikely form of entertainment, Richard will prove you wrong, with fascinating tales of the history and mythology surrounding the herd.
Its a privilege and a joy to work with and observe these magnificent beats, says Richard. To tell the story and show the wild cattle to people from all over the world is a sheer pleasure and to see visitors enthralled and amazed by their history is something that I will never tire of.
If you cant make it to Chillingham then the Great North Museum: Hancock has a mounted specimen on display. Elsewhere in Newcastle, look out for the beautiful bronze bull set into the pavement of Bewick Street, near Central Station.
Its a copy of Thomas Bewicks 1789 engraving of a Chillingham bull, an image which Bewick himself regarded as his most important piece of work.
Walk on the wild side
Guided walks to see the Chillingham wild cattle run between Easter and the end of October on weekdays and Sunday afternoons - check www.chillinghamwildcattle.com for up-to-date details. Walks last about one hour, but you need to allow 20 to 30 minutes to walk from the car park to the meeting point. The park is off the A697 between Alnwick and Belford, and is signposted with brown signs