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.
Perhaps for as long as 700 years these remarkable animals have inhabited Chillingham Park. Isolated from all other cattle, they are totally inbred yet remain fit and healthy – a unique situation without parallel in any wild animal anywhere else in the world.
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. Studies with the most modern DNA technology show that the cattle have a uniquely high degree of genetic uniformity. However, there is still a small amount of genetic variability between individuals. We don’t yet know if this is the result of chance or if it is in some way related to the survival of this unique population; 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.
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. These calves were conceived 9 months previously, in spring, and it is evident that warmer springs and an earlier start to the grass growing season are bringing the cattle back into breeding condition earlier
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.”
This study was made with data from the period 1947 to 2008. Since then, changes in the management of the herd have taken effect, which have improved calf survival. These were removal of the sheep flock that used to share the park, and introduction of a more effective hay feeding regime.