Among some of the rarest animals on earth, Northumberland’s Chillingham cattle have roamed freely for centuries, without human intervention
A herd of small off-white cattle graze in open parkland dotted with huge, gnarled oak trees. Behind them are gently undulating slopes, down which meander streams lined with ancient alders. Stretching far into the distance are the peaks of the Cheviot Hills. This idyllic setting is the parkland of Chillingham Castle, approximately 23 miles south of Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland.
Lazing under the trees, feeding in a slow, deliberate manner, or wandering through the bracken-covered hillsides, the cattle live as their ancestors did centuries ago. For these are Chillingham wild cattle, a truly unique breed.
With fewer than 100 bulls, cows and calves, they are among the rarest animals on earth. But what makes them so special is that they are never – and for hundreds of years have never been – handled by humans. Supplementary food in the form of bales of hay is provided in winter, but that is the limit of human intervention. Other than that, they fend for themselves, fighting, feeding and breeding as wild cattle would have done 1,000 years ago.
The first written record of the cattle at Chillingham dates from 1645 in documents held by the Earls of Tankerville. Historians have discovered, however, that, in 1344 King Edward III granted royal permission for Chillingham Castle to be ‘castellated and crenellated’, that is fortified, against the possibility of invasion by the Scots. A dry-stone wall was built around the 1500-acre (610-hectare) estate. This may have been the point when the cattle were first enclosed, to be hunted for food.
Another theory is that the cattle were present as early as the time of the Domesday Book, in the late 11th century. There are, however, no records to support this. Before they came to Chillingham, it is believed they roamed through the great forest that stretched from the Northumberland coast to the east to the Irish Sea in the west. Today the cattle scatter freely across 330 acres (130 hectares) of open pasture and wooded habitat, within the estate walls.
“No one really knows how the cattle got here, but we can be reasonably sure they are the descendants of domestic cattle that somehow escaped from captivity,” says Chris Leyland. He is the farmer in charge of the herd. It is his belief that, having broken free, the cattle may have been ignored for many years. For centuries the border country was largely a no-man’s land between the warring English and Scots. During that time the cattle would have been largely left alone, apart from some taken for food. When peace returned to the area, the wary and aggressive cattle would have been difficult to catch.
Small and light
Having lived in isolation for so long, these animals vary in behaviour and appearance from today’s domestic breeds. The first difference is that they are much smaller. Most are half the weight of a typical domestic breed. The average Jersey cow weighs 900lb (400kg), while the ubiquitous black and white Friesian is 1280lb (580kg). Chillingham cows weigh between 616-660lb (280-300kg), while the larger bulls are approximately 660lb (300 kg). Chris does, however, recall one large bull that weighed in at 880lb (400kg). They are short compared with domestic cattle, roughly 43in (110cm) at the shoulder, compared to a Jersey’s 48in (121cm).
From a distance, the cattle can be momentarily mistaken for large sheep, due to their off-white colour. Closer to, the curved, upright-pointing horns of both males and females are seen. There is a reddish tinge around the ears and, in some animals, around their feet, eyes and nose. From the rear they appear considerably thinner than domestic cattle. The latter have been bred fatter to provide meat or milk, whereas these animals are naturally lean, adapted for running and fighting.
Perhaps most peculiar, though, is rather than the typically bovine lowing, the cattle make an extraordinary sound. This is a rather mournful series of hoots and grunts, which echo around the park.
The bulls fight for the opportunity to mate with the cows, in trials of strength. Unlike animals such as red deer, whose rut is an annual occurrence in autumn, the Chillingham cows can conceive all year round. This means the males must always be alert to the possibility of mating.
The confrontations are usually over quickly as the dominant bull asserts his authority. He confronts and sometimes attacks his rivals to send the challenger running away. “This can be a dangerous time for the other cattle,” says Chris. “The beaten bull may flee in panic, and end up crashing into and injuring the watching younger males.”
These younger bulls hang around on the periphery of the herd, not daring to challenge the dominant bulls for fear of being badly injured. Overall the bulls form a pecking order in which each animal knows its place. This changes over time as one bull successfully challenges another higher up the hierarchy. Many of the cattle bear scars on their bodies, with few bulls living longer than 10-12 years. The cows can reach 15 years old.
When there were far fewer cattle than today, the herd was led by a single, dominant animal, known as the king bull. He would be the only one to mate and sire calves. His dominance lasted for a period as long as three years until he would be deposed by another bull. However, with an increase in the number of cattle, this situation has now changed. Today several bulls get the opportunity to mate.
The cows usually have one calf every two years. They can be born in any month of the year, an adaptation to help protect the calves. If they were all born at the same time, there was more of an attraction for predators such as wolves.
When the birth is due, the cow heads away from the other members of the herd so that her offspring will be safe. Otherwise the calf is at risk of being trampled by fighting males. After a week or so following the birth, the calf emerges from its hiding place to join the herd. It will not be weaned for a further seven to 14 months.
The appearance of the new calf often attracts the attention of the other females. Childless cows may try to steal the calf, so if they come too close the mother will push them away. All the calves used to struggle to survive during the autumn and spring months because sheep were competing with them for grazing. The sheep have now been removed, leaving the cattle without competition. Chris describes them as “good little grazers”, able to gain nourishment from poor grass where domestic cattle would struggle. They can survive harsh winter conditions when domestic calves would perish.
Following the long and freezing winter of 1946-47, only 13 animals, eight cows and five bulls, survived. This fall in numbers together with the fact that no new animals have joined the herd for hundreds of years, should have left the herd at risk of infertility caused by inbreeding.
Chris believes that the reason this has not happened is that over time any inbred animals have simply not survived. This has left the herd purged of anything that could adversely affect them. Members now are fit, healthy animals.
As well as the Chillingham herd, there is a second, much smaller group of approximately 20 animals at a secret site in north-east Scotland. This was established in case any unexpected problems, such as disease, occurred within
the main herd.
The Chillingham cattle are related to another rare breed, the White Park cattle. These are also white but have longer horns, and black, rather than reddish, ears. In the early 20th century, some Chillingham cattle were taken to be crossbred with the White Park.
The cattle roaming the park at Chillingham are a splendid sight. Left to their own devices, they are not only surviving, but thriving. To watch them is to take a step back to a time when Britain was home to more wild than domesticated animals. The majestic setting of their home in the wilds of Northumberland, the mystery of their arrival and survival all combine to make the Chillingham wild cattle one of the natural wonders of Britain.
Visiting the park Because the Chillingham cattle have never been handled, they can be dangerous to people. The only way to see them is to join a guided tour of the estate. Visitors are warned never to approach too close, as they risk being attacked and even gored by the sharp, pointed horns.
The wild cattle are not the only attraction for visitors to Chillingham Park. There are also herds of fallow deer and small groups of roe deer and hares.
A host of woodland birds can be seen, including resident nuthatches, green and great spotted woodpeckers, and summer migrants such as redstarts, which nest in holes in the oak trees. A small population of the native red squirrel also lives in the park, which is open to visitors from April to October.
Chris Leyland (pictured below right) is the part-time park manager for the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, which has owned the cattle since it was formed in 1939. He also owns a 400-acre livestock farm in nearby Belford.
Words: Stephen Moss Photography: Steve and Ann Toon