A Unique Herd of Wild White Cattle
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN BRITAIN
CHILLINGHAM PARK, in the county of Northumberland, on England’s border with Scotland, is home to a small herd of Wild White cattle. Every year visitors come from far and wide to see them. Why? Because these animals are unique. My wife and I are among the visitors today.
These Wild White cattle are thought to have been at Chillingham since at least the 13th century, when a park wall, enclosing some 1,500 acres [600 ha], was built to corral wild cattle for food. These unusual animals, now restricted to 350 acres [140 ha] of the park, all have red ears, black feet, and speckled faces. The speckles appear when they reach about two years of age and gradually spread over the neck and shoulders.
The herd has never been known to produce a colored, or even partially colored, offspring. They are allegedly uncrossed with any domestic stock and are unlike the thousand or so other cattle of Chillingham Park, which can now be found in small herds across Britain and North America. Tests have shown that the blood grouping of this herd is unique among Western European cattle.
The two horns of the bulls grow forward and outward, whereas the horns of the females are raked backward. The shape of the skull and the manner in which the horns grow are similar to the aurochs, the extinct wild ox depicted in ancient European cave paintings. Some authorities believe that the cattle at Chillingham are the direct descendants of the oxen that once roamed the British Isles, but their origin remains obscure.
To get a closer view of these animals, we join the warden of the herd in his four-wheel-drive vehicle. We drive rapidly downhill over rough pastureland, and suddenly the herd comes into view, sheltered from the sun under a small clump of trees. Some look at us curiously, as cattle do. Two or three of them amble over to our vehicle and rub up against it with their massive horns.
The warden points out the leader of the herd, king bull, as he is known. He is the fittest and strongest bull. During the time of his “reign,” which lasts about three years, he will sire all calves that are born to the cows. In this way, it seems, only the best available blood is carried forward year by year. No bull is allowed to mate with his own offspring, and no son takes over as sire from his father.
At one time the wolf was the principal enemy of these animals, preying mainly on weaker members of the herd, although there have been no wolves in Britain since the 16th century. The cattle do sometimes stampede if frightened, and when they eventually come to a halt, the bulls instinctively form a protective circle, with the cows and their young in the middle, safe from any possible predator.
These cattle are truly wild, so modern agricultural practices are of little help in caring for them. Even in winter when there is little grass, they will eat only hay and straw, refusing grain and cattle feed. The calves have a very low birth weight, so there are few problems during calving; but should a cow get into difficulties, nothing can be done to assist her, as vets cannot be called. If one of the animals is touched by a human, it is said that it could be killed by the rest of the herd.
Cows give birth to their calves away from the herd and keep them hidden for the first week or so. After that, the mother and calf approach the herd, and the king bull comes to meet them and to escort them in. Next, the other cows sniff and inspect the calf before it is admitted. Once it is accepted, no further special attention is paid to it.
A major outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease came within two miles [4 km] of Chillingham Park in 1967. The estate was hurriedly sealed off, and the herd saved. Afterward, it was decided that a small reserve herd should be set up in Scotland, as a precaution against extinction. There was no problem with rejection in this case, as all the animals selected to start this new herd were handled together.
We have appreciated our short excursion to see the Wild White cattle and to learn something of their history. Perhaps one day you will be able to visit in person and see for yourself these unique beasts in their tranquil setting.
[Picture Credit Lines on page 27]
Courtesy Chillingham Wild Cattle Association
Loaned by courtesy of Lawrence Alderson