The tiny, beautiful Isle of Swona is the only place in Britain where a herd of beef cattle lives wild, having been isolated from humans for almost 40 years.
Around two miles off the west coast of South Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands, Swona is a hazardous place to reach. Adam Henson and the Countryfile team risked the rocks and fierce currents to observe these cattle, descended from a small domestic herd, and to see how they have adapted.
The island may be just a mile and a half long by half a mile wide, but Swona was once home to a thriving community of up to 30 people. It even had a schoolhouse with half a dozen children attending. Getting on or off the island was always risky, however; the one natural cove landing is shallow and can only be used by carefully navigating the rocks at high tide. At other times, the tidal currents race past at a ferocious, and potentially lethal, rate of knots. Any rowing boat caught in the tidal swirl would be instantly swept away with the current.
The community managed to fish, either from the shore, or by using their rowing boats during the brief periods of tidal slack. Much of the catch was dried and salted in drying houses, built of the local flagstone, designed like elongated stone igloos, with a small opening at either end. These skeows (pronounced ‘scuse’) were located close to the houses, and rows of gutted and salted fish were hung from sticks to air dry.
By the 1970s, the population had been whittled away until just two ageing residents remained – a brother and a sister called James and Violet Rosie. James was taken ill on a stormy March night in 1974. Violet called the lifeboat and, realising how difficult life would be on her own, opted to go with her brother. As she could not be certain when they would return, she asked the lifeboat men to help her release their small herd of cattle, including the bull. They threw down some bales of hay and left the island never to return.
In 1975, an attempt was made to catch the cattle and bring them to the mainland, but the lack of a suitable landing spot, plus the ripping tides, created danger for both the men and the cattle. Some animals were rounded up, but two sustained broken limbs in their panic and attending veterinarian Gerry Wilson had to put them both down. Because of this, and regulations that dictate the need to test cattle for bovine tuberculosis before they are moved, it was decided to leave the remaining animals where they were.
Frozen in time
Adam Henson and I visited Swona with the island’s joint owner, Cyril Annal, his son Alexander and the now-retired vet, Gerry Wilson. Our boat approached the island with caution. Although our landing was achieved without drama, on the return journey, we experienced the island’s vicious tidal rip currents for ourselves. We had perfectly calm waters, but could imagine just how dangerous this place would be in a choppy seas, even in a modern powerboat, never mind in a rowing boat.
The islanders’ houses and skeows show their 40 years of neglect. The house where James and Violet Rosie lived has a Marie Celeste feel. The table has reading glasses, Christmas cards and a Press and Journal newspaper from early March 1974. A kettle sits on the flat surface of the woodfire-fuelled stove, along with two cutlery knives.
The byre, where the cattle were chained before they were released, still looks largely unaffected by time, although the roof is beginning to break down. Elsewhere, James and Violet had installed a wind turbine to generate electricity for the house. Any surplus was stored in a bank of car batteries, while a generator provided back-up power when required.
After exploring the island, we spotted the cattle grazing, and approached them carefully, under guidance from Cyril. Being wild and unused to people, they were, understandably, wary of our presence. I had to get fairly close with my camera and was acutely aware that the bulls or even the cows could charge.
The herd has settled to an average of 17 animals; I counted 16, including three adult bulls and two calves – the rest are cows and heifers. The original animals were Beef Shorthorn and Aberdeen Angus cattle. Today, two of the bulls are all black, the other speckled brown, reminiscent of Beef Shorthorn colouring. The cows are mostly solid white, brown or black, all looking sleek and fit in their glossy summer coats – in the winter, their coats get longer and rougher to help them withstand the worst of the weather.
Cyril says that the herd has developed its own population dynamics: the cows stay together in a herd controlled by the dominant bull or bulls, which vie for mating rights. Any subdominant, adolescent or older bulls get pushed out from the herd and live on the fringes. As Adam said: “They look to be thriving and could indeed be on their way to creating an entirely new breed of cattle: Swona cattle.”
The future of the herd
But what will happen to this unique herd and this beautiful island? Alexander Annal will eventually inherit Swona and he indicated that there are no plans for any changes. The poor harbour facilities mean that the cattle could suffer serious injury if they were rounded up, so that option is unlikely. Culling the cattle would be even more unthinkable. So, for the foreseeable future, they will be left as Britain’s only unmanaged herd of domestic cattle.
They will almost certainly be undisturbed, too, as the dangerous landing means that the island is unlikely to become a tourist draw, although a ferry that runs from Gills Bay, Caithness, to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay regularly passes close by.
But the cattle’s presence is having a positive effect on the island’s ecology: by cropping the grass short, the cattle have created a lush, beautiful wildflower meadow right across the island, and it now has Site of Special Scientific Interest status. Among the flowers we spotted were abundant orchids, ragged robin, groundsel, vetches, devil’s bit scabious, bog cotton, corn marigold and many much rarer plants.
The island is also home to greylag geese and nesting waders and seabirds, including skuas, while the rocky shore provides a safe haven for grey and common seals.
On a sunny warm day, Swona is a truly tranquil and lovely place to visit. Because of its unique attributes and caring owners, it looks set to remain one of those extremely rare places where nature rules, and only a few will be able to enjoy its beauty. We were truly privileged to be among them.
Other feral populations of domestic animals in Britain
The closest to wild flocks are primitive breeds such as the North Ronaldsay and Soay. Individual sheep may escape, sometimes for years, especially in more extensively farmed hills.
These small white cattle are believed to be direct descendants of primordial ox. They have been kept in isolation since the Middle Ages at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland.
There are many herds of wild goats spread all around the country, some in suitably wild scenery such as Isle of Rum, Loch Lomond, Galloway and the Mull of Kintyre.
The Konik breed is derived from the now extinct Tarpan. It can be seen at Stod Marsh and Ham Fen in Kent. Other breeds such as Exmoor ponies run free in some wild places.
Having escaped from farms across southern England, wild boar have become established in some parts of the country, such as Sussex and the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire.
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