Wild Cattle of Chillingham
Wild Cattle of Chillingham

Watch an insert on the Wild Cattle of Chillingham

(Image : The Journal - Footage : Rich Webster)


One of our regular correspondents on the blog is a lady with old Hartford roots, Lynn Atkinson. She recently penned a piece on a herd of feral cattle in England, which reminded us of a conference we held in the bowels of the Thukela River valley, one of the remotest places on earth, at the headwaters of the former hunting grounds of the Zulu kings.

To get to Zingela, we rode our delegates in on horseback, down a trail which was last trodden by Boer soldiers in 1900, on their way to the Battle of Blouwkraans, named for the tributary that feeds the Thukela in that region. The battle dismembered a number of British and Boer horses from their minders, and they were abandoned to this wilderness to care for themselves in “big five” country, where lions, leopards and other predators roamed. We often read of the feral horses that roam the desert plains of Nambia, abandoned by their former colonial masters, the Germans, but little of the 30 to 40 that have survived the even-more-testing rigours of the Thukela basin, which now forms part of the Thukela biosphere, and is still home to elephant, rhino and the like. In colour, they’re a motley collection of chestnuts, bays and greys, which makes them visibly vulnerable to the preying population, and it says something for their resilience that they’ve survived more than a hundred years in their feral condition.

Lynn Atkinson tells of a similar story of wild cattle in Britain, which have managed more than eight centuries in this state. She writes:

“Everyone knows that the Wild Cattle of Chillingham are a phenomenon. They simply should not exist, according to our theory of survival. Yet they do. To understand why and how, we must abandon our short-sightedness and accept the Laws of Nature, demonstrated by that herd day in, day out.

Eight hundred years ago, and sickened by the monotony of Scottish raids, the Parliament of Westminster instigated a Border Lord, and commissioned the building of a wall enclosing a square mile. Within it were captured (inadvertently?) a small herd of the wild cattle that roamed across the face of Europe before the sea washed in, and created the island of England.

For 800 years, these cattle have lived within that wall. They have never been touched, never immunised, never has ‘new blood’ been introduced. They are healthy, happy, and thriving, a living relic of the past and a testament to the power of nature. They fascinated Charles Darwin, and are now recognised as a separate specie.

They are husbanded from afar. Intervention only occurs in the case of a stomach wound from goring. They calve all year round, no season, and so they obviate the wipe-out of a whole generation by calamity or bad weather.

Each calf is examined by the whole herd when it is born. If it is healthy, it is accepted. If there is a defect, it is killed. They practise ‘survival of the fittest’ and ensure that no weak genes survive in their gene pool, which is to say it is now ‘perfect’. They are in fact clones of each other, so inbred that they are the only natural clones know to the world. In modern times, they withstood the foot-and-mouth and BSE outbreaks which caused the national herd to be burned across the country. Certainly, over the centuries, they have withstood much else. They are immune, functioning and self-contained. Their only predator, the wolf, no longer exists in England, and that is the only concession that this herd enjoys over their forebears, who lived outside the wall.

They recognise each other by smell, and that is why they are never touched by human hand, for fear of causing rejection by the herd, (in the same way that we never touch a small bird, for fear that the mother will reject it). Nature causes an equal number of males and females to be born, and although there is one Alfa male allowed to breed at a time, selected by pitting itself against all comers, all the other males are accepted by the herd; none are killed unnecessarily so the herd has maximised its recovery position.

They have as many backup bulls as possible. Nature sees to it that few unnecessary risks are taken, because there are quite enough unavoidable risks involved in the survival game.

Not only has the herd, which at times has been down to 20 individuals, survived and thrived ‘alone in the world’, but their pasture has also never been tilled, fed, cut or interfered with in any way. There are sheep, because there have always been sheep, so the pasture is the product of sheep and these cattle, which graze like sheep, that is they cut the grass rather than pulling it with a twisted tongue, like modern cattle. The ground is fantastically springy, thick with dense growth and we know that per square yard, it has almost treble the number of species of similar ground outside the walls.

The Chillingham herd behave extraordinarily when threatened. They form a circle, calves in the centre surrounded by the cows, the bulls on the outer rim, but not standing horns out. They mill and they prod each other, increasing the adrenalin and anger levels in the process. They put themselves and each other on a war footing, the human equivalent of the Zulu war dance, a frightening sight from whichever side of the fence you’re on. The Chillingham herd are small, not unlike Jersey cattle, and they have the same triangular heads. They are white, with soft curling coats and wonderful horns.

Interestingly, thirty or so years ago, an abandoned island in Scotland was used for grazing a herd of Aberdeen Angus/Shorthorn. They are now feral. One bull with all the courage in the world stands between anyone in a boat and his herd. They are even wilder than the Chillingham herd; so it does not take long for the tame and dependant to revert to self-sufficiency. That is good to know. Now if we look at what the British in particular have inflicted on themselves in the same time the Chillingham herd have spent within the wall, we can understand why the outcome is the reverse. For we are living through the Fall of Britain.

For a long time, the waters around this island were, for its people, the equivalent of the Wall to the Chillingham herd. To add your genes to the gene pool, you had to have the get-up-and- go to build a boat, understand navigation, row or sail across an angry sea and beat the waiting inhabitants, who had had their wheetabix! Each successive invasion faced the result of a refined, honed and enhanced gene pool, tested in heart, head and fibre. The inhabitants were ‘selectively’ bred and the result gave us the two greatest seats of learning the world has known, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Because the inhabitants were secure, they became increasingly cultivated and civilised. A gentle and generous people was born. One that gave everything that they invented, discovered or developed, to the world at no cost. They took the human comforts and opportunity that their endeavours had created to the four corners of the world. They had a benevolent empire, which cost them dearly; even the most profitable colony, Hong Kong, never once showed a profit! Unlike the Chillingham herd though, Britain practiced little selection, and is scarcely recognisable today.”

Perhaps these things are best left to Mother Nature, and therein may lie a lesson for horsebreeders.