Protecting

These cattle live as wild animals, so interference is kept to a minimum, but we have to manage their unique habitat and protect them against external dangers. As a herd, they have coped for centuries with whatever Mother Nature sends their way. There is usually adequate pasture, but we must provide hay in the winter, otherwise the herd would be much smaller and at great risk of extinction. Unlike a farm feeding regime, it is not designed to encourage weight gain nor productivity. We used to grow our own but in some years the quality was little better than straw so now we buy it in from local suppliers. Previously, getting the hay to the cattle so all herd members could benefit was difficult, but with new all-terrain equipment we now distribute it around the park to where the cattle happen to be, and this has reduced bullying and is probably one reason why winter calf survival has improved.

In 2001 the biggest threat to the Chillingham Cattle arrived – Foot and Mouth Disease!! The disease was confirmed just 10 km away and the contiguous cull extended right up to the Park wall. Strict biosecurity measures were put in place to defend the herd. These had to be maintained for several months, with ceaseless vigilance and complete attention to detail as well as the maintenance of relationships with neighbours, authorities and the media at a very difficult time.

Disease continues to be a worry, as it is for everyone involved with cattle, so biosecurity protocols are in place. The woodland gives extra protection, but we are very aware of threats from novel diseases as well as from the sadly familiar diseases of livestock.

A key part of management is the methodical keeping of records of births and deaths, which has continued since Charles Darwin recommended it 160 years ago. This gives us a baseline for the analysis of herd numbers. The herd seems to have stabilised at around 120 total, rather higher than in the late 1800s. In 2023 we had a record year for calves with 28, but also a high winter death rate. This followed the very dry summer of 2022 when there was little summer grass, which meant the cattle were not in the best condition at the start of winter, and hay feeding cannot always compensate for this kind of shortfall.

Over recent years, the uniqueness of Chillingham Park 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.

In November 2021, Chillingham was hit by Storm Arwen. It did terrible damage and destroyed many of our feature trees. The damage was worst around the Pavilion and the Church, as well as on the upper slopes of the Park. It took us a week to cut our way into the Park and then we were relieved to see that the Park was relatively unscathed. The cattle weren’t bothered!

Today, 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 the visually intrusive conifer plantations surrounding the Park and replacing them with native trees.

The labour intensive and expensive repairing continues of the stone wall which has surrounded the Cattle Park for centuries. Virtually every year there is some degree of collapse.

The publication on 28 April 2017 of “Chillingham: its Cattle, Castle and Church” with a foreword by the then HRH the Prince of Wales, has been well received and is now in its second (2023) edition. We hope and believe that, as King, His Majesty will continue to take a great interest in the Wild Cattle and this is a great honour for Chillingham.

 

Protecting

In 1967 foot and mouth disease raged in Britain and the threat to the Chillingham herd, was obvious. Accordingly, in 1972, 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 monarch. This herd now numbers 25 and these are the only other Chillingham cattle anywhere in the world. In the event of disaster, Chillingham Park would be restocked from this source. We also have a stock of frozen embryos. These back-ups provide protection against the irreplaceable loss of hundreds of years of history.

However, the priority remains the protection of the herd in its native habitat and, although herd numbers at Chillingham are healthy, their low fertility means that the 40 or so females of breeding age produce, between them, only around 20 calves a year. So, the Warden and the Park Manager and the Honorary Veterinary Officer keep a very close eye on how they are doing. As is the case in commercial hill cattle, in some years especially when the spring weather is difficult a particular set of calves may not survive well, or at the other end of the scale a bunch of old animals of similar age may reach the end of their lives at about the same time. But whenever there is any doubt about the cause of death, post mortem examination is conducted.

Management

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. You can find details on the legal background in this article in the official journal of the Government veterinary service. The basic principle is that because they don’t enter the food chain, the cattle are to be treated as wild animals. Another point of difference from most other cattle is that as a world-renowned and unique population, the UK Government is obliged under the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect them.

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, and we are very pleased that under the so-called ELMS arrangements, this support continues. Whatever the policy framework, we believe we are strong candidates for support under any programme that aims to secure biodiversity and the public good. 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.

Inbreeding

The Chillingham Wild White Cattle are probably the most heavily inbred wild-living mammals in the world. Over the years, genetic tests using a variety of methods from blood groups to specific genes and tiny fragments of DNA have revealed a unique degree of uniformity. Is this a result of natural selection favouring a particular combination of genes or is it just an effect of long-term inbreeding? We cannot tell for sure. And the key genetic questions are – how can an inbred herd have survived and continue to thrive? Following from that, what should we do about it?

We know from dozens of experiments and observations in farms and zoos, not to mention taboos in human society against marriage of close relatives, that inbreeding is usually detrimental. This is because if a harmful gene is inherited from one parent, it is likely to be masked by a normal gene inherited from the other. But under inbreeding the chance of receiving a harmful gene from both parents is higher (that’s because if the parents are related, they are likely to be genetically similar).

In most lab experiments of prolonged inbreeding, populations die out because of this accumulation of harmful genes. But in a very few, maybe 5% of cases and especially if inbreeding is very gradual, by sheer chance harmful genes can be purged from the population because in any one generation of young only a few individuals are affected. It looks as though this is what has happened at Chillingham. However, it is possible that there is a lack of genetic variation relevant to disease resistance, which could mean that the herd would be particularly vulnerable to a novel disease challenge. All the more important, therefore, is the maintenance of strict biosecurity.

These genetic results are clearly relevant to their conservation, but at the same time they have contributed to our understanding of their history. Some exciting recent results have included a hint that they have a Scandinavian connection, clear evidence that they have no particular connection to Roman cattle, and the possibility that they, along with some other British cattle, may descend from a cross between the domesticated cows brought in by Britain’s first farmers, and aurochs bulls – the gigantic wild cattle that formerly roamed Britain.

 

These cattle live as wild animals, so interference is kept to a minimum, but we have to manage their unique habitat and protect them against external dangers. As a herd, they have coped for centuries with whatever Mother Nature sends their way. There is usually adequate pasture, but we must provide hay in the winter, otherwise the herd would be much smaller and at great risk of extinction. Unlike a farm feeding regime, it is not designed to encourage weight gain nor productivity. We used to grow our own but in some years the quality was little better than straw so now we buy it in from local suppliers. Previously, getting the hay to the cattle so all herd members could benefit was difficult, but with new all-terrain equipment we now distribute it around the park to where the cattle happen to be, and this has reduced bullying and is probably one reason why winter calf survival has improved.

In 2001 the biggest threat to the Chillingham Cattle arrived – Foot and Mouth Disease!! The disease was confirmed just 10 km away and the contiguous cull extended right up to the Park wall. Strict biosecurity measures were put in place to defend the herd. These had to be maintained for several months, with ceaseless vigilance and complete attention to detail as well as the maintenance of relationships with neighbours, authorities and the media at a very difficult time.

Disease continues to be a worry, as it is for everyone involved with cattle, so biosecurity protocols are in place. The woodland gives extra protection, but we are very aware of threats from novel diseases as well as from the sadly familiar diseases of livestock.

A key part of management is the methodical keeping of records of births and deaths, which has continued since Charles Darwin recommended it 160 years ago. This gives us a baseline for the analysis of herd numbers. The herd seems to have stabilised at around 120 total, rather higher than in the late 1800s. In 2023 we had a record year for calves with 28, but also a high winter death rate. This followed the very dry summer of 2022 when there was little summer grass, which meant the cattle were not in the best condition at the start of winter, and hay feeding cannot always compensate for this kind of shortfall.

Over recent years, the uniqueness of Chillingham Park 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.

In November 2021, Chillingham was hit by Storm Arwen. It did terrible damage and destroyed many of our feature trees. The damage was worst around the Pavilion and the Church, as well as on the upper slopes of the Park. It took us a week to cut our way into the Park and then we were relieved to see that the Park was relatively unscathed. The cattle weren’t bothered!

Today, 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 the visually intrusive conifer plantations surrounding the Park and replacing them with native trees.

The labour intensive and expensive repairing continues of the stone wall which has surrounded the Cattle Park for centuries. Virtually every year there is some degree of collapse.

The publication on 28 April 2017 of “Chillingham: its Cattle, Castle and Church” with a foreword by the then HRH the Prince of Wales, has been well received and is now in its second (2023) edition. We hope and believe that, as King, His Majesty will continue to take a great interest in the Wild Cattle and this is a great honour for Chillingham.

 

Protecting

In 1967 foot and mouth disease raged in Britain and the threat to the Chillingham herd, was obvious. Accordingly, in 1972, 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 monarch. This herd now numbers 25 and these are the only other Chillingham cattle anywhere in the world. In the event of disaster, Chillingham Park would be restocked from this source. We also have a stock of frozen embryos. These back-ups provide protection against the irreplaceable loss of hundreds of years of history.

However, the priority remains the protection of the herd in its native habitat and, although herd numbers at Chillingham are healthy, their low fertility means that the 40 or so females of breeding age produce, between them, only around 20 calves a year. So, the Warden and the Park Manager and the Honorary Veterinary Officer keep a very close eye on how they are doing. As is the case in commercial hill cattle, in some years especially when the spring weather is difficult a particular set of calves may not survive well, or at the other end of the scale a bunch of old animals of similar age may reach the end of their lives at about the same time. But whenever there is any doubt about the cause of death, post mortem examination is conducted.

Management

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. You can find details on the legal background in this article in the official journal of the Government veterinary service. The basic principle is that because they don’t enter the food chain, the cattle are to be treated as wild animals. Another point of difference from most other cattle is that as a world-renowned and unique population, the UK Government is obliged under the Convention on Biological Diversity to protect them.

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, and we are very pleased that under the so-called ELMS arrangements, this support continues. Whatever the policy framework, we believe we are strong candidates for support under any programme that aims to secure biodiversity and the public good. 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.

Inbreeding

The Chillingham Wild White Cattle are probably the most heavily inbred wild-living mammals in the world. Over the years, genetic tests using a variety of methods from blood groups to specific genes and tiny fragments of DNA have revealed a unique degree of uniformity. Is this a result of natural selection favouring a particular combination of genes or is it just an effect of long-term inbreeding? We cannot tell for sure. And the key genetic questions are – how can an inbred herd have survived and continue to thrive? Following from that, what should we do about it?

We know from dozens of experiments and observations in farms and zoos, not to mention taboos in human society against marriage of close relatives, that inbreeding is usually detrimental. This is because if a harmful gene is inherited from one parent, it is likely to be masked by a normal gene inherited from the other. But under inbreeding the chance of receiving a harmful gene from both parents is higher (that’s because if the parents are related, they are likely to be genetically similar).

In most lab experiments of prolonged inbreeding, populations die out because of this accumulation of harmful genes. But in a very few, maybe 5% of cases and especially if inbreeding is very gradual, by sheer chance harmful genes can be purged from the population because in any one generation of young only a few individuals are affected. It looks as though this is what has happened at Chillingham. However, it is possible that there is a lack of genetic variation relevant to disease resistance, which could mean that the herd would be particularly vulnerable to a novel disease challenge. All the more important, therefore, is the maintenance of strict biosecurity.

These genetic results are clearly relevant to their conservation, but at the same time they have contributed to our understanding of their history. Some exciting recent results have included a hint that they have a Scandinavian connection, clear evidence that they have no particular connection to Roman cattle, and the possibility that they, along with some other British cattle, may descend from a cross between the domesticated cows brought in by Britain’s first farmers, and aurochs bulls – the gigantic wild cattle that formerly roamed Britain.