A British beast rarer than a panda, is a story I couldn’t resist. It sounds so improbable while, at the same time, transmitting a feeling that we can do something right occasionally, if we just try. In this case, the “something right” is to just leave Mother Nature alone, and observe, instead of trying to change her to suit our own purposes.
Chillingham wild cattle are not to be trifled with. They are ill-tempered, unpredictable and capable of a deceptive top speed of 30mph. They reside amid the sloping meadows and ancient oak and alder forests of Chillingham Cattle Park in Northumberland, England, where they have roamed free from human interference for the better part of 1,000 years.
White as snow, with sinewy frames, a fierce temperament and vast horns that curve menacingly into jet-black tips, these are no ordinary oxen. Among the last remaining wild cattle in the world, they retain a primeval character. They are also some of the rarest animals on the planet; currently numbering around 130, they are far fewer in number than giant pandas, Siberian tigers or mountain gorillas, and its a British beast.
In body size and shape they are, effectively, medieval cattle. This is evident in their small stature – the bulls weigh in at around 400kg, less than one-third that of modern continental breeds – and in the cows’ small udders, which only have to produce milk for one calf at a time. They are the only British breed of cattle to have escaped ‘improvement’ by selective breeding during the so-called Agricultural Revolution of approximately 200 to 300 years ago. Its amazing that, on a small Island, a British beast that is at least medieval has survived.
It was the medieval fascination for blood sports that meant the Chillingham cattle were originally enclosed in the park around 800 years ago – and left to live in a wild state. They were treated like a large game animal. The residents of Chillingham Castle would have come across on horseback with packs of hounds and lances, and they would have chased the cattle through the park. That’s why they were kept wild in the first place – the hunters wanted that fight-or-flight response.
The Chillingham cattle’s characteristics may have been frozen in time in the medieval era, but theories as to their earlier origins are manifold and colorful.
Some say they are the last relic of Aurochs herds that once widely roamed Britain’s woodlands. That theory is seductive but misguided. “All modern-day European cattle were created as a result of domesticating the prehistoric aurochs, when man started farming thousands of years ago,” explained Ellie Waddington, one of the Chillingham cattle’s wardens. “I wouldn’t describe the Chillingham cattle as any more closely related to them than any other modern breed, but they do give us a real insight into how the Aurochs may have behaved. The herd structure, the psychology, the mating rituals and so on – nowhere else can you see and study a truly natural herd structure.”
Unusually, compared to dairy breeds, the Chillingham herd have a 50/50 gender split, and they produce young year-round. Competition among the males is fierce, bloody and occasionally fatal. As these are wild animals, the wardens let nature run its course. “Eye injuries, broken ribs, puncture wounds – we have no veterinary intervention at all,” said the warden. “That doesn’t sit right with everyone, but they’re wild animals; they don’t want our help.”
The reason for their homogeneity is centuries of inbreeding, to the point that the cattle are essentially genetic clones. The damaging effects of inbreeding are well known – many scientific studies have shown that it causes animal populations to be more prone to birth defects and infectious diseases than those that draw on a wide gene pool. However, by a quirk of evolutionary fate, it has had the opposite effect in the Chillingham cattle – a trait unique in the natural world. Being isolated, they’ve managed to essentially purify their gene pool through inbreeding, to the point where they’re natural clones of each other and there’s not enough diversity to cause harmful mutations. It goes against everything we know about inbreeding.
The cattle themselves even take steps to maintain this genetic equilibrium. The last calf to be born with a mutation was about 20 years ago, and it was missing its tail. The mother abandoned it, and it died within about 24 hours, and that was it. Whatever caused that mutation didn’t get passed on.
The main threat facing them, though, is disease, such as foot-and-mouth. That possibility of a disastrous herd-wide illness, prompted the establishment of a backup herd in a secret location in Scotland, and a store of frozen embryos.
For now, though, the herd is thriving. The population is at its biggest since record-keeping began, at the behest of Charles Darwin in the 19th Century. Modern visitors to the park are confronted with a sight unchanged since medieval times: a population of rare genetic outliers, living in a wild state as they have done for hundreds of years. Just don’t get too close. Its a British beast.