In 1967 foot and mouth disease raged in Britain and the threat to the Chillingham herd, still recovering from the 1947 collapse, was obvious. So on 16 April 1972 when numbers had finally reached 40, a reserve herd was set up with a yearling bull and two young heifers. This was on Crown land in northeast Scotland and the new herd became, effectively, the property of the Queen. Calves were born and now and again, when numbers have permitted, young animals from Chillingham have been added to the herd which now numbers 25. In the event of disaster, Chillingham Park would be restocked from this source.
We have a project in hand to secure a stock of frozen embryos. If foot and mouth disease comes to Chillingham, the herd would definitely be slaughtered and hundreds of years of history would be totally lost if we didn’t have these back-ups.
However the priority remains the protection of the herd in its native habitat and, although there are 100 animals at Chillingham at most 20 of them are proven breeding cows. So the Warden and the Park Manager and the Honorary Veterinary Officer keep a very close eye on how they are doing. For instance, some years a particular set of calves may not survive well, and in other years there may be evidence of mineral deficiency, while if there is any doubt about a cause of death, a post-mortem is carried out.
Farmers who visit Chillingham sometimes ask how we comply with the laws relating to livestock. The animals are not ear-tagged, and they are not routinely tested for tuberculosis. The basic principle is that because they don’t enter the food chain, the cattle are to be treated as wild animals. Also as a world-renowned and unique population, the UK Government is obliged under the Convention on Biological Diversity not to jeopardise their survival. You can find details on the legal background in this article in the official journal of the Government veterinary service.
A key part of management is feeding the herd properly in winter. Hay is now bought-in. We used to grow our own but in some years the quality was little better than straw. With new all-terrain equipment it is now possible to distribute hay around the park to where the cattle actually are and this has reduced bullying and has probably improved winter calf survival.
Now that the UK has left the European Union, change is very likely in the ways the rural environment, rural livelihoods and the conservation of biodiversity are protected. Chillingham Park and the Wild Cattle have continued to receive support at almost the same level as during the previous (2007-2017) period, when this was provided under the Higher Level Stewardship scheme, but the current arrangements terminate in 2022. Whether the stated intention that “the public good” will be a criterion for future support will actually be honoured remains to be seen; if it is, then we should be strong candidates for support. In any event we will take all possible steps to ensure that we will continue to look after the Wild Cattle as we do now.