From a safe distance, perhaps 200 yards, they resemble sheep. But focus your binoculars on those shaggy white coats and you’re swept back 800 years to a time when the distant ancestors of these animals grazed these same hills. As we approach, the more curious bulls – no sheep here – trot towards us, bumping up against each other, pawing the ground. They are breathtakingly beautiful, with mottled white, scraggy faces and red, fox-like ears. They are Chillingham cattle, the oldest-known breed of cattle in the world.
You’ll find the herd – 93 animals – in open parkland in north Northumberland, south-west of Berwick and above Chillingham village, with its 12th-century castle. “These are the last remnants of wild cattle; you can’t see this anywhere else in the world,” said Richard Marsh, the park warden from the charitable Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, which owns the herd. “This is a unique experience. They are rarer than the giant panda.”
The cattle graze in the thrilling shadow of the Cheviots, and beyond that the Firth of Forth. Amid the undulating hills, medieval alders dip their branches in streams while holly, crabapple and hawthorn punctuate the fields and valleys. Echoing across this landscape are the mournful grunts of the Chillinghams, a primordial, unnerving hooting that reverberates straight from the reign of Henry III.
All this makes for something approaching a profoundly, unexpectedly, primeval experience. The Chillingham breed is as near as we get to a proto-cattle, the bovine equivalent of Dawn Man. The herd has existed here for at least 800 years. Their true origins remain unfathomable, but a mixture of research and conjecture intriguingly links them to ancestors of the Mesopotamian ox, which arrived in Neolithic times, and the fabled Bronze Age cattle, the ancient auroch. Whatever their provenance, they are the only living link with cattle’s prehistoric ancestors.
The Chillinghams provide an insight into how cattle roamed our wild forests centuries before domestication. They wander around the park, with four dominant bulls holding sway when the main herd enters their turf. The cattle are sociable, palpably alert and twitchy as cats, utterly unlike their languorous modern-day farming cousins. Untreated by vets, their only constraint is a distant boundary fence that encloses their 365-acre land. And in winter their natural diet is supplemented with hay.
They look ferocious, the bull’s horns ripe for Viking drinking vessels, while the females’ curve more gracefully inwards. Richard will rarely allow you closer than 40 yards, but even so you can’t help noticing that these cattle cause each other a lot of damage. Some have lost eyes, others are prominently scarred and the bulls were sweeping their heads in puddles of manure in preparation to fight for breeding rights. “Nothing can hurt them, but they may see an anxious deer and that’s enough for them to stampede,” said Richard. “They can run at up to 30mph. It’s quite a sight, as long as they’re moving away from you.”
A two-week old calf bounded around, deceptively as cute as a newborn lamb, unlike its watchful, unimpressed mother. Calves are born year-round – another consequence of a species whose natural rhythms remain undisturbed by man – and I was struck by the mother’s udders, small enough to cup in a child’s hands, rather than the swollen space hoppers of modern milking cows.
“If that calf is strong enough, it will survive. If it’s weak, the mother will just leave it to die,” said Richard. The natural lifespan of the females is 15 years, for the bulls between 12 and 14. “Eventually they just take off to a field corner and go to sleep,” he added. They’re left where they fall for carrion crows and other scavengers, unless near a watercourse where pollution could be an issue.
Chillingham cattle have brushed off the recent cold winters, but they remain critically endangered. Just 13 individuals survived a severe winter in 1947, and a single bull brought them back from the brink. The good news is that the current number, 93, is the highest in centuries, and a dozen or so calves are born each year. “The area can sustain 130 cattle,” said Richard. “You could extend the herd to other areas, or just leave them to sort it out themselves. The aim is to keep a viable herd for future generations.”
The Chillinghams have noticeably skinny backsides, designed by nature with muscled shoulders for fighting, rather than by man, for rump steaks. This means they have little utilitarian value in the modern world, and the Chillingham are representative in part of other rare and native breeds of cattle in Britain that face similar challenges.
The sentimental argument for their preservation is persuasive, as Claire Barber, conservation officer at the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, freely concedes. “They are lovely animals to look at, but they are just as important for us to conserve as Stonehenge or stately homes,” she said. “These cattle provide a link to the past that we have lost.”
Some rare breeds have found a market in grazing nutritionally poor uplands to enable wildflowers and farmland birds to flourish – they are better adapted to survival on land with coarser vegetation and colder, wetter conditions than mass-market Holsteins. Others are good for meat or dairy produce. “I hate the idea that food production will become limited and dependent on a few breeds,” said Claire. “Trends and fashions in farming change. We’re witnessing a trend for high yields. But with climate change, we may not able to manage cattle that require high input.”
Back at Chillingham, Richard gently growls at the cattle as they become a little too curious for his comfort. “They recognise my voice, shape and smell,” he says. “But there’s always that potential danger. These things are big and wild. There’s a little edge to it all.”
When to go
You can visit the cattle from Easter to October. May/June is an excellent time to go: the cattle are active, the bulls often fight, and the ancient broadleaf woodland is in blossom and leaf. To find out more, call 01668 215 250 or visit www.chillinghamwildcattle.com.
How to get there
Chillingham is between the A697 and the A1 between Alnwick and Berwick. Both towns are served by Cross Country trains and bus services run from them to Chillingham (0871 200 2233, www.travelinenortheast.info).
Where to stay
In Berwick, Northumbrian House (01289 309 503, www.7ravensdowne.co.uk) offers B&B from £50 per person per night.
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