Saturday, 3 October 2009
The Wild White Cattle of Chillingham
For at least 700 years, at Chillingham Park in Northumberland, a herd of wild white cattle has roamed, untouched by man. They are the last remnants of the wild herds that were once found across Europe. Today they number about 85 beasts, and live in 365 acres of parkland, enclosed by a stone wall. Since their enclosure in the 13th century they have been inbreeding and have managed themselves to keep the breed pure and healthy. There is always a "King bull", who remains in charge and sires all the calves until successfully challenged by a younger animal, usually after three or four years. In this way, he avoids mating with his daughters. When a calf is born, which takes place away from the herd, it remains hidden for some days before being introduced to the herd. The King bull examines the calf closely to decide whether it should be admitted. If he approves, the cows will also inspect it. If he does not, he will kill the calf at once, thus helping to ensure the survival of the best and fittest. They invariably breed true to type and never throw a calf that is not entirely white. They are the only herd in the whole world that has remained truly pure, without any outside blood ever having been introduced. Because the cattle are completely wild it is not possible either to feed them (they will not eat normal cattle food, though are sometimes fed hay in winter) or to give them veterinary help, though they seldom suffer from any disease. They now belong (as far as it can be said that they "belong" to anyone), to the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, bequeathed by Lord Tankerville, the owner of Chillingham Castle, in 1971. The Association keeps a benevolent eye on the cattle and their surroundings and protects them from the modern world. However, they have looked after themselves entirely successfully for the last seven centuries, and it is to be hoped that they will still be there after at least another seven.