These cattle live as wild animals but we have to manage their unique habitat and protect them against external dangers. A key part of this is the methodical keeping of records of births and deaths, which has continued since Charles Darwin recommended it 160 years ago. There is always the threat of disease coming in from outside, and we have make sure there is adequate pasture and provide hay in the winter, otherwise the herd would be much smaller and at great risk of extinction.
Members of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association are kept fully informed about events in the herd. Life is never dull!
In 2001 the biggest threat to the Chillingham Cattle arrived. The Foot and Mouth disease. The disease was confirmed to be just 10 km away from the cattle and strict biosecurity measures were taken out to defend the herd. These had to be maintained for several months. This required ceaseless vigilance and complete attention to detail as well as the maintenance of relationships with neighbours and authorities and the media at a very difficult time.
In 2008 we had one of one of the best years for calves for some time and we were delighted with the addition of twelve new calves, six male and six female. This can be attributed to better grazing for the cattle since the sheep were removed from the park. The Chillingham herd number remained throughout the year at around eighty. Two older bulls and a cow died in January. Jo Gidlow, our honorary vet, carried out a post mortem on the cow and removed various parts for further study. Nothing sinister was found but it was noted that the cow had hundreds of ticks on the underside of her body.
The new group of young bulls in the park was named ‘The Hoodies’, as they had apparently been challenging older bulls, but not quite daring to put the hoof in. Our warden had a tricky moment with the leader of the gang, but managed to get himself and a group of visitors across the burn and out of harm’s way.
In 2009 it was observed that the 83 cattle members had particularly good coats that year. This could have been because of the cool summer and all the rain or the absence of sheep.
In 2010 we found that the hemmel (cow-shed) roof had a ridge fault, but it was quickly fixed and is now hoped to survive for the next 100 years. At the end of November, 2 ft of snow covered the grass and so the cattle were given 2 big bales of hay per day. We lost two members of the herd just before the snow arrived.
In 2011 we were lucky with a much milder winter and as a result the cattle managed well with the herd number at around 100.
Over this period, the uniqueness of Chillingham and its Wild Cattle has become ever more appreciated as a priceless national asset. The herd is officially designated as a component of the UK’s biodiversity and it is recognised that the Park and the herd are of public benefit, as a remarkable historic survival and genetic resource enriching national life.
Now we are in 2020 and the herd is doing very well. Cows are having their first calf at a younger age, and animals are coming through the winter in better condition than was the case when they shared the park with 300 sheep. Post-mortems are done to check on disease status – there is liver fluke, and we are dealing with that by restoring the drainage system which has deteriorated in the 200 years since it was constructed. We have also improved the landscape by clearing, where possible, the conifer plantations surrounding the park and replacing them with native trees. The labour intensive and expensive repairing of the stonewall which surrounds the cattle park continues. The publication on 28 April 2017 of “Chillingham: its Cattle, Castle and Church” with a foreword by HRH the Prince of Wales, has been well received. His Royal Highness has always taken a great interest in the Wild Cattle and this is a great honour for Chillingham.