One warm summer’s day, I was driving along one of those narrow, twisting lanes in the Devon countryside. As I rounded a corner, at a judiciously low speed I was suddenly confronted by a cow. Not just any old cow, but a cow of blinding whiteness and beauty, udders winging gently beneath her. She ambled along in a placid manner in the company of her human minder as if they owned the road. I was happy to keep to their pace. The cow was the first time that I had ever seen one of the legendary White Park animals, which traces it ancestry back to the cattle of pre-Roman Britain.
The White Park isn’t the rarest of rare breeds of cattle in Britain. Their numbers have risen from around 65 breeding females in 1970 to around 500 today. Ignoring such exotic imports as buffalo from Campania, imported by a few daring British farmers to make our very own mozzarella (they appear to be settling into the British countryside very well), the accolade for rarity probably goes to the Chilligham Wild Cattle, a herd of some 49 animals that has been at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland for over 700 years, and which are descended from the wild cattle that roamed the north of England around 1000 AD.
Now these, and other rare breeds – Irish Moiled, Red Poll Shetland and Gloucester – are threatened by foot and mouth. Perhaps it’s surprising that they’ve survived at all. Figures on some breeds of cattle supplied by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, an organisation formed to promote the survival of traditional breeds of sheep and pigs as well as cattle in threat of extinction, tell their own story.
Irish Moiled under 30 – 150+
Shetland ca 200 – 350
White Park ca 65 – 500
Gloucester ca 60 – 520
Red Poll 600 – 900+
British White ca 150 – 1000+
Longhorn 120 – ca 1500
Belted Galloway 370 – 1050
Dexter ca 350 – 2000
These figures cover the period from the late 1970s to the late 1990s.
The fact that this small but significant growth has happened at a time when the number of farms in Britain has shrunk from 233,000 ten years ago to 168,000, and when agricultural biodiversity has been threatened by the misguided policy of cheap food, globalisation of food production and agriculture, and other commercial pressures, is no small achievement. Add to that the nightmare of BSE and it becomes something of a miracle, but a miracle of potentially great significance.
By and large farmers are not a sentimental lot. By and large. Their attitudes to their animals are dictated by practical requirements. Breeds of cattle developed in the first place not because they were beautiful, but because they fulfilled particular functions, and because they thrived in certain conditions. Highland Cattle had shaggy coats, for example, to protect them from harsh Highland conditions in Scotland, and they lived happily on the rather meagre grazing rations of the region. None of this suited the famed Aberdeen Angus used to the milder climes and richer pastures of the coastal plain,.
The history of Gloucester cattle goes back to the 13th century. The breed was noted for its docile temperament and long breeding life, often up to 12 or 15 years, which made it an ideal house cow. It was considered a dual purpose animal, a productive source of dairy produce (with a low bacteria count, incidentally), while also having a good enough conformation to be eaten as well (incidentally, a good many chefs prefer to use an old dairy cow for steak as they can be just as tender as a the fancier breeds if properly butchered and hung – and of course they’re cheaper). The Old Hereford Longhorn is the genetic forebear of the Longhorns familiar from a thousand Westerns, and was a triple purpose animal, being used for milk, meat and as draught oxen. They are very hardy, and can survive on grass alone, even through winter. Lincolnshire Red Cattle are a relatively recent development, dating back to the 19th century. They are noted as being particularly good mothers, prized for their flavour and the fact that they suited to the marginal grasslands and dry, chalky soils of the Lincolnshire Wolds.
Even more prized for their flavour than the Lincolnshire Red is another Scottish breed, the Belted Galloway, the source of the second best steak that I have every eaten in my life (the best being a true Chianina bistecca alla fiorentina at Il Buco in Rome in 1986). They are small and well able to cope with the rough ground grazing and marginal land, from which they are able to get enough nourishment to build up a rich marbling of fat that serves to keep the dark red meat moist while cooking and to give it its supreme flavour.
The Jersey and Guernsey breeds, on the other hand, are kept purely for their dairy qualities, for they produce milk of a particular richness which makes the finest cream known to man, slow pouring, velvety and the colour of buttercups.
These breeds still have great significance – and hope – for us. For example, there has yet to be a single case of BSE in any of the Dexter herds. As the British public reel from food crisis to food crisis, increasing numbers of consumers and chefs are looking to these older breeds, finding in them qualities of flavour and texture long missing from the commercial varieties exploited by agribusiness. More encouraging still is the fact that a number of farmers, having seen their profit margins on the commercial breeds eroded to the point where there is no profit at all, are turning back to traditional breeds and marketing them through specialist butchers, of whom there are now over fifty, directly to the public or to restaurants.
Since the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was formed in 1973, not a single breed has been allowed to become extinct. The importance of this for the future of agriculture may well be inestimable as these breeds represent an irreplaceable gene pool with qualities that we may well need – one of which their eating qualities.
Matthew Fort is the food editor of The Guardian
Photo: White Park cattle