A British beast rarer than the panda

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The New York Times attributed an even more ancient sacrificial importance to the cattle, positing that they emerged after pre-Roman Celtic druids attempted, through “a process of segregation and selective slaughter”, to engineer an all-white version of the aurochs, the wild progenitor of all modern cattle species, for use in religious rituals.

The theory that the Chillingham cattle are the last relic of aurochs herds that once widely roamed Britain’s woodlands is seductive but misguided. “All modern-day European cattle were created as a result of domesticating the aurochs when man started farming thousands of years ago,” explained Ellie Waddington, Crossley’s sister and fellow cattle warden. “I wouldn’t describe the Chillingham cattle as any more closely related to them than any other modern breed, but they do give us a real insight into how the aurochs may have behaved. The herd structure, the psychology, the mating rituals and so on – nowhere else can you see and study a truly natural herd structure.”

Unusually compared to dairy breeds, the Chillingham herd have a 50/50 gender split, and they produce young year-round. Competition among the males is fierce, bloody and occasionally fatal; as these are wild animals, the wardens let nature run its course. “Eye injuries, broken ribs, puncture wounds – we have no veterinary intervention at all,” said Crossley. “That doesn’t sit right with everyone, but they’re wild animals; they don’t want our help.”

The limit of human involvement is leaving hay for the animals in the harsh winters and putting them out of their misery if they are sick or injured beyond the point of recovery. It’s just as well that the cattle all look identical, so it’s impossible to identify individuals. “Given that the only way we can assist them if they’re suffering is to shoot them, it’s best not to be on a first-name basis,” said Crossley.

The reason for their homogeneity is centuries of inbreeding, to the point that the cattle are essentially genetic clones. The damaging effects of inbreeding are well known – many scientific studies have shown that it causes animal populations to be more prone to birth defects and infectious diseases than those that draw on a wide gene pool. If you’ve ever seen a Habsburg jaw gurning down at you from one of the great portrait halls of Europe, you’ll know that it’s not a good idea in humans, either.

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