For 700 years, wild cattle have been grazing in Chillingham Park and, with only about 100 beasts, they are said to be one of the rarest animals in the world. Wendy Short observes the herd which has remained genetically isolated for hundreds of years.
A day out of the ordinary. That is the strapline on the Wild Beasts of Chillingham website and while some of the finer points of management may not be appreciated by members of the general public, a tour of this unique herd in Northumberland is a must for anyone with an interest in cattle.
The wild cattle of Chillingham are among the rarest animals in the world, with some experts believing they are descended from the herds which once roamed free in British woodlands.
The animals have been grazing the same 141 hectares (350 acres) of parkland for 700 years and have never been handled, received concentrate feed or been subject to any veterinary attention.
The herd has doubled in size to about 100-head, since sheep were removed from the park in 2009, in an effort to increase food availability, explains local farmer Chris Leyland, who looks after the parkland for the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, which is a registered charity.
Numbers have fluctuated over the years, with just eight cows and five bulls remaining, following the harsh winter of 1947. However, the 50:50 male to female ratio has been fairly static, since records began.
As no new animals have been introduced for the past 300 years, the question of in-breeding is an obvious one. Studies of the herd are extensive, but data collection is hampered, because the cattle cannot be tagged for identification.
Chris says: “The animals are regarded as a scientific marvel; in-breeding throughout history is well known to lead to extinction because of the small gene pool which the animals share. DNA samples from the cattle show the cattle are all genetically identical; however the Chillingham wild cattle have managed to survive in spite of this, and the herd continues to grow.
“The herd number is officially cited as 100, but they are all roughly the same size and colour and their ranging habits make it difficult to determine a precise figure.
“Those of us in daily contact can pick out certain individuals, by the shape of their horns, for example, but otherwise, they look very much alike.”
Enquiries about herd fertility and longevity prompt more guesstimates from Chris.
“It is estimated most cows will calve twice in every three years. As expected, calving difficulties are very rare, but few have been observed and calves remain hidden for several days, before joining the main group.
“This behaviour may be motivated by the need for large prey animals to reduce the vulnerability of the main herd. One particular cow is recorded as having lived for just more than 18 years, but it is thought bulls do not generally last as long.”
The cows come on heat all-year-round and competition is fierce, so most bulls carry scars from fighting for the chance to pass on their genes and deaths related to struggles for dominance have been recorded throughout the herd’s history.
Between 1945 and 2005, 11 bulls and three cows died, but Chris is convinced many of the incidents occur accidentally.
“The cattle can cover the ground very quickly and their horns are extremely sharp. When a bull has lost a challenge and is running away, he may trample or gore an innocent bystander by mistake.
“In the ensuing chaos, a young bull will often seize his chance to mate with the cow which the two adversaries have been fighting over.”
The only selection pressure applied to breeding is for the animals to remain in good health and to show enough aggression to secure food or access to a mate.
“I personally find this one of the most interesting aspects of the herd, because I imagine quite the reverse would have applied to domestic cattle,” says Chris.
“They were presumably chosen for their docile temperament, which would have allowed them to be milked or to be used as draught animals.”
Experts believe Chillingham cattle descended from herds which once roamed free in British woodlands
It is estimated most cows will calve twice in every three years, with calving difficulties very rare
There have been periods when herd numbers are low and a single male has emerged as leader, but it is more common for individuals to constantly jostle for position. It is thought dominant bulls only hold their status for two or three years, before being usurped.
Groups of up to 10 bulls which have failed to rise within the hierarchy will live fairly peaceably together, sometimes in specific parts of the parkland.
In general, little aggression is shown to other herd members which stray into their area, although other groups of young bulls have been known to challenge the herd leader en masse.
Visitors eager to see the wild cattle can walk through the park, accompanied by the resident warden, who ensures they keep a safe distance away.
“The Chillingham cattle are much more unpredictable than domestic animals,” says Chris. “I’ve seen them stampede at the sight of the fallow deer which live in the park, but at other times, they will pay them little attention. The same applies to the timber truck, or any other vehicle passing through.
“If you try to shoo them away, as you would with normal cattle, they will back up so far and then turn and face you.
“I’m not certain what they might do next, as common sense always prevails. I can’t imagine what they would do to a crush, but the question is academic, as I very much doubt they could be persuaded to enter one in the first place.
“The range is fully enclosed by standard fencing, but I think it’s unlikely they would go beyond the perimeter, even if given the opportunity.
“Some time ago, the gate was opened into a new field and it took a month before they would venture into it.”
In one of the few concessions to conventional management, the herd’s diet is supplemented in the depths of winter. Even then, they consume no more than one or two round bales of hay a day and much prefer grazed grass. They never appear to be waiting to be fed and will not approach the vehicle bringing their supplies.
Keeping cattle in an enclosed area, without routine veterinary treatment, means their environment must be managed to some extent on welfare grounds, says Chris.
Nevertheless, only mechanical means are used to manipulate the productivity of the range, with coarse grasses, thistles and bracken topped regularly, to encourage biodiversity.
Post-mortems are performed regularly to determine cause of death and a new problem has emerged recently. Biosecurity is another issue which is taken very seriously.
“Historically, there has been no evidence of liver fluke, but it has been found in recent years, probably because of the high rainfall we have experienced. In response, we maintain the ditches so they are fully effective and the situation will continue to be monitored.
“To date, no major disease has been identified and fortunately, the herd escaped the foot-and-mouth crisis, although it came perilously close. TB is a constant worry, of course.
“As I have cattle at home, I wash my vehicle between visits to the two herds. In the event of any kind of disaster, the association has a reserve herd, which is maintained at a location in Scotland.”
The Chillingham herd exerts a fascination for scientists and cattle breeders worldwide and while many aspects of the herd have been studied in depth, no records exist in relation to the quality of their beef.
“I’m sure their meat has been eaten in the past, but to my knowledge, no-one has sampled it in recent years, because the cattle do not undergo testing and therefore the beef is deemed to be unfit for human consumption.
“There is still a lot to learn about the wild cattle and it is a privilege to be involved in their care,” says Chris. “Everyone involved in the association is working to ensure they remain in the parkland for the years to come, as they may have qualities which might be urgently required in the future.”
Chillingham Castle sits in the grounds of Chillingham Park
The 141-hectare (350-acre) Chillingham Park, in Northumberland, is home to a herd of 100 Chillingham cattle
Calves remain hidden for several days before joining the main group