They’re rarer than wild pandas, utterly unique yet to the passing eye appear to be just another herd of unusually coloured cattle. But they’re not, they’re the beasts of Chillingham!
The herd of around a hundred or so animals are a white, creamy colour very similar to that of sheep, with darker spots on bulls but they are the only wild cattle that remain anywhere in the world. Their terrain, some say, resembles what much of medieval Britain would have looked like – open coarse, grassland and dense woodland, large oaks, alders grouped around boggy areas and along the sides of stream-filled gullies. It is, in fact, Chillingham Park in Northumberland and these rare animals have lived out their lives on these harsh acres for at least 700 years and just as they have remained unchanged, so largely has the landscape.
The park is shared with herds of fallow and roe deer, foxes, badgers and red squirrels and perhaps, before long, wild boar may be introduced because of their important role in regenerating woodland. From the park, there are stunning views across the Northumberland countryside, with the lovely historic fortress town of Alnwick just a few miles away, as is Bamburgh, with the dramatic Northumberland coast just 10 miles distant.
The cattle are surprisingly small compared to most domesticated cattle but their sweeping, forward-pointing horns offer a real caution that these are genuinely wild animals and are likely to act as such. “They can see the points of their horns so know exactly where to place them,” I’m told by the park manager, as a young bull fixes me with a glare and increases his pace towards me. I feel suddenly vulnerable as I hang out of the open door of our strange little, all-terrain vehicle taking pictures. We move off literally just in time and the bull looks slightly disappointed that I got away.
No one is quite sure of their full history, where they came from and, even more puzzling, how they survive with centuries of inbreeding? Are they descendants of the same cattle who roamed through the forests of prehistoric Britain; are they the same breed whose bulls Roman soldiers felt impelled to sacrifice on Hadrian’s wall? One thing is certain, their ancestors are the massive, ancient aurochs from which all cattle are descended and who once sported almost identical horns. The blood line is crystal clear.
The large herd separates out into two or three sub-herds across the undulating land dotted with trees and rough pasture but it is only temporary and they will intermingle again at some point. As you bounce over a promontory, a lone bull may be sitting chewing the cud out of view, having temporarily removed himself from all others.
As nature is entirely even-handed, there are equal numbers of bulls and cows and as cows can breed year round, competition to mate is ever-present. The bulls will clash head to head, horn to horn and usually it is a simple trial of strength quickly resolved. But from time to time, one of them will be killed.
I watch as a gang of four young bulls, called the Hoodies, try to intimidate an older bull. There is stiff-legged parallel walking almost in slow motion, each avoiding eye contact with the other but the old boy, even though surrounded, is no faint heart and the Hoodies back off. It is like Brighton’s West Street on a Saturday night.
Apart from some winter hay, there is no intervention of any kind and animals do die – the weeding out of genetic imperfections, but it is winter that takes the greatest toll. If an animal is suffering, however, he or she will be despatched.
Not this year but in other years, the early arrival of spring and new grass has encouraged early breeding resulting in births in mid-winter and, subsequently, numerous deaths – a direct toll of global warming. Despite this and despite having been reduced to about a dozen animals in the 1940’s, these genetically similar beasts have survived.
In the early 19th century, wealthy landowners often had White Park cattle to graze their manicured acres and these carried genes from Chillingham Wild cattle but, surprisingly, there was no migration of genes in the other direction and the line remains absolutely pure.
The land itself has alternated its ownership over the years but now both cattle and land have been united under the guardianship of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, formed in 1939. The park sits alongside the ‘castellated and crenellated’ Chillingham Castle, its design approved by Plantagenet King Edward III, and it was then that the grounds were enclosed and the cattle corralled, presumably because they were seen as a valuable food source.
The idiosyncratic castle is open to the public and you can view its glorious staterooms and dungeons. I haven’t seen them myself but apparently there are still scratchings on the walls of the dank dungeons where prisoners ticked off their days. And there is the 20ft-deep hole into which some prisoners were flung to die after first having had their limbs broken. And of course there are ‘ghosts’ and a night-time ghost tour.
And through it all the wild beasts of Chillingham grazed away unknowing and unconcerned. Makes you wonder who are the most civilised! We’re always being asked what would happen to all the animals if everyone was to go veggie? With only a quarter of the present agricultural acreage required on a nationwide vegan diet, the wild areas could return everywhere. Wild boar, the ancestors of pigs, live happily just down the road from me, feral goats live wild and on the hillsides of Wales sheep are largely untended and if they were not rounded up and killed would form small family groups.
How much more rewarding it would be to see animals living out their lives for their own purposes rather than being turned into travesties for our purposes.
You can visit the Chillingham Wild cattle – see www.chillinghamwildcattle.com and you can contact Chillingham Castle on 01668 215359. The castle is open only in the afternoons so it might be sensible to first visit the cattle in the morning.