Wild White Cattle of Chillingham. Friday June 28, 2013
Last week I had the most incredibly uplifting experience. I was in the company of what is possibly the rarest large mammal on earth. This animal is rarer than the giant panda; rarer than the Siberian tiger. There are no examples in any zoos. In fact, the only place you can see these beautiful creatures is in an isolated valley in Northumberland.
They are one of the county's less visited attractions; the Wild White Cattle of Chillingham.
Their story is one of foresight, natural selection at its most brutal and luck, incredible luck. Eight hundred years ago the then Lord of Chillingham created a wall, seven miles long, to completely surround the valley containing these cattle. He wanted them to remain wild so that the Scots could not steal them (they cannot be lead or driven).
From then until now the herd has remained completely isolated and has not bred with other domestic cows. Today they are as much like our domestic cattle as a fox is like a St Bernard. They are genetically unique in the world.
At one point, after the bitter winter of 1947, the herd dwindled to a mere eleven individuals. In 1967 Foot and Mouth Disease came within three miles of the estate and officials were dispatched with rifles to shoot the whole herd. But after observing through binoculars that the herd appeared healthy with no sign of the disease, they went away again
The cattle wander freely in a wooded and pastured valley of 350 acres. Last week, bathed in sunshine, it appeared idyllic. I should imagine in January it is rather different.
Hearing their story, along with the bugling of the bulls (they do not roar or bellow like ordinary cattle) was inspiring. Watching them was peaceful. I could have stayed in that meadow all day, but my £7 only entitled me to an hour of the (very patient) warden's time. I could go back again and again, and if it were not for the 350 mile journey to get there, probably would!
I appreciate that walking in wild countryside is not universally enjoyable and that cows do not uplift the spirits of everyone, but when you know what really does uplift your spirits and you can create a cocktail that will be uniquely satisfying to you, then – even if you can only do it every so often – you will be onto a winner.
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