One of the rarest animals on Earth, a visit to the Wild Cattle of Chillingham combined with a tour of the fine Castle make an absolutely unique day out in beautiful Northumberland.
For 700 years now these remarkable Wild Cattle have been grazing in Chillingham Park. With only around 100 beasts, they are one of the rarest animals on the planet and have remained genetically isolated for hundreds of years.
The animals are regarded as a scientific marvel; inbreeding throughout history is well known to lead to extinction because of the small gene pool that the animals share. DNA samples from the cattle show that the cattle are all genetically identical; however the Chillingham Wild Cattle have managed to survive in spite of this, and the herd continues to grow.
The beasts are also completely untamed and remain untouched since the medieval ages, so their behaviour is entirely natural and can give us insight into the behaviour of extinct ancestral wild cattle. The cattle breed throughout the year, and the bulls adopt ‘home territories’, plots of the land which they assume as theirs. They share this territory, but do not tend to defend it if other cattle graze in it.
This rare beast is sparser than the great panda, and is a must see at Chillingham.
Since 1860, records have been kept on the breeding behaviour and numbers of the Chillingham Cattle. The sixth Earl of Tankerville started observing them more closely following the encouragement of Charles Darwin.
Since then it has been observed that the number of calves born in winter has increased year by year. Delve a little deeper, and we find that the Met Office weather data reflects a parallel pattern; warmer springs 9 months previous are held responsible for the early births.
In the British Ecological Society’s Journal of Animal Ecology, a team of ecologists, led by Dr Sarah Burthe of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology explains that, “Cattle have a nine-month gestation period. Warm springs allow vegetation to start growing earlier, providing the cattle with more nutritious plant growth and more cows conceive earlier as a result. Winter-born calves don’t do very well and are more likely to die before they reach the age of one. This suggests that the cattle are responding to climate change but this is having a negative impact on them.”
Dr Burthe also mentions that, “The Chillingham cattle data are unique and, as far as we know, the longest mammal phenology dataset in the world.”
We note that the Dr Burthe’s study covers the last 60 years worth of data. During this time the herd has grown from just 13 to around 100.