The Wild White Cattle of Chillingham

From an article by the Dowager Countess of Tankerville

Patron, Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, Ltd.

 The Chillingham Wild Cattle are one of the original herds of emparked wild cattle and still roam in their natural surroundings over about 300 acres of Chillingham Park in Northumberland. They are not recorded in the White Park Cattle Herdbook, but the two breeds share a common origin in the wild cattle that populated Britain in ancient times. Many of the behavioural traits described here can still be seen in the domesticated herds of White Park Cattle that are managed extensively.

 Though their origin is uncertain, the existing herd is thought to have been at Chillingham for at least the past 700 years. Before that, it is probable that they roamed the great forest which extended from the North Sea coast to the Clyde estuary; and it is presumed that when, some time in the 13th century, the King of England gave permission for Chillingham Castle to be "castellated and crenolated" and for a park wall to be built, the herd was corralled for purposes of food. The successful capture of a number of wild cattle in those days would not only have eased the local food situation, but would also have made it impossible for raiders to take such cattle back with them across the border since, being wild and extremely fierce, they could not have been driven like their domestic cousins.

 As to their ancestors, the shape of the skull and the manner in which the horns' grow out from it are similar to the Aurochs (bos primogenius) and quite different from the skull of the Roman importation (bos longifrons). It is thought by many therefore that the Chillingham Wild Cattle are the direct descendants of the original ox which roamed these islands before the dawn of history. How they came to be white is another interesting matter for speculation. They invariably breed true to type and have never been known to throw a coloured, or even partly coloured, calf.

 In recent years, it has been possible to obtain live blood samples from several of the wild cattle just prior to their deaths. Dr. J. G. Hall of the Edinburgh Animal Breeding Research Organisation has analysed these samples from the genetic point of view and has found the blood grouping to be unique amongst western European cattle. Their origin therefore still remains a mystery.

 The genetic aspect is also of interest. For the past 700 years they have been inbreeding and, as far as one can tell for records of their distant past are scant, the only effect has been that they are now somewhat smaller than they used to be. Old skulls found in the park have shown this. Their remarkable survival may be due to the fact that the fittest and strongest bull becomes "King" and the leader of the herd. He remains King for just as long as no other bull can successfully challenge him in combat, and during his tenn of kingship, he will sire all the calves that are born. Nature seems thus to have ensured the carrying forward of only the best available blood.

When a bull wants to fight, he will come out a little way from the herd and will then start to bellow - perhaps "hoot" is the more descriptive word - and to paw up the ground. Presently, the King bull may accept the challenge, in which case he too will come out from the herd, and facing the challenger at a few yards distance, will go through the same performance. After a time, and quite suddenly, one of them will attack; but after a short round of perhaps only half a minute, both bulls will start grazing, each keeping a watchful eye to see whether he can catch the other off his guard. Then, once more quite suddenly, a further round may take place. This pattern of behaviour will go on until one of the bulls seems to acknowledge defeat. The loser will then slink away into temporary banishment and live for a while away from, but in sight of, the herd. During this time he is usually irritable and very dangerous to approach. Close observation has shown that apart from these more serious fights which are motivated by a desire to become "King" and to reap the rewards thereof, there occur many minor skirmishes between bulls - and indeed between cows and their sons - which are merely a form of 'training exercise'.

 Strangely enough, the bulls seldom injure &ach other very seriously in fighting, and only on three occasions during this century has one of them been killed in this way. One instance took place during the summer of 1939 when a bull that had been in temporary exile, instead of returning quietly to the herd, came back trumpeting defiance. The King Bull and another came out to meet him and a three cornered fight ensued. Only the beginning of this fight was actually witnessed, but the next morning the bull which had attempted the fighting comeback was found dead with an eye out. It is assumed that, accidentally getting a horn thrust in the eye, he threw up his head, whereupon one of the other two butted him full force in the chest. At any rate, an examination showed that the organs of the thorax had been smashed more or less to a pulp, so the force of the impact may be imagined. The skeleton of this animal is now in the Hancock Museum, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In more recent times this museum has acquired a family group of three stuffed animals for exhibition.

 Between the two world wars the strength of the herd had been fairly constant at around 35 to 40 animals. In January, 1947, it was 33. Then came the most severe winter that anyone in north Northumberland could remember. In the previous year spring droughts followed by summer floods had decimated hay crops in Northumberland, and stocks of fodder were well below average. Thus by the time that the fourth blizzard struck the area in March, causing snow drifts of up to 40 feet in the Park, there was hardly any hay left. Despite valiant attempts to get hay and straw to the Wild Cattle, 20 of them perished, leaving 8 cows, 5 bulls, and no young stock.

 During the next 12 months no calves were born and it was feared that the herd might face extinction. Then, to everyone's relief, a healthy calf (albeit a bull) was born in August 1948, and as the statistics overleaf portray, the herd very gradually began to replenish its numbers.

 In 1967 a major outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in Northumberland posed a severe thrdat'7to the future of the herd. Although the disease came within two miles of the park catastrophe on this occasion was averted. However, such good fortune could not be trusted to 1&k in the future and it was therefore decided to set up a small reserve herd in Scotland.

 With regard to the care of these animals, the fact that they are wild renders normal agricultural practices inappropriate. They will eat only meadow hay and occasionally straw, and they will refuse grain and concentrates. Even in the 1947 winter when they were severely starved, they would not touch the oats and cattle cake offered to them. They nevergo under cover or seek any shelter other than the lee side of a wood, except when searching for food. In olden days they would have roamed over huge areas in search of winter food, and it is only because they are confined to their present 300 acres that it is necessary to feed them hay in winter. It is important therefore that such hay is spread on open ground and in a different spot every day in order to keep them on the move and on clean ground. Neither is it possible to give the cattle any veterinary attention. However, they seldom suffer from any disease; perhaps because they are not interfered with by man. Similarly, if a cow gets into difficulties during calving, nothing can be done to assist her. Thus when cows grow old they sometimes die in this manner, and under such circumstances, the calf is usually found to have been dead for some time.

 The cows have their calves away from the herd, and for the first week or so, the calves are hidden. Sometimes one will come across one of these lying in the bracken, quite still and with its chin on the ground, in a kind of 'form' rather like that of a hare. But should the mother happen to see anyone in the vicinity of her calf, she will immediately attack. In due course the calf is brought into the herd by means of an introduction ceremony. When the cow and calf approach the herd, the King bull will come out to meet them and escort them in. Other cows will then inspect the calf and sniff it, as if to decide whether it should be admitted to the herd. Once this is 'agreed', the cows will pay no further attention to the new calf which thereafter remains with the herd.


The Chillingham Wild Cattle Association was formed in 1939 as a Charitable Organisa-tion to take over the care and maintenance of the herd. At that time the then Lord,Tanker-ville had become aware that the steadily increasing costs of maintaining the herd (which was his family's private property) were rising beyond his private means. When in subse-quent years it became clear that this Association was capable of standing on its own feet financially, he arranged to bequeath the Ownership of the herd to the Association. This took effect upon his death in 197 1.

 A further threat to the herd arose after the death of the 9th Earl of Tankerville in 1980, when the decision was taken to sell the Chillingham Estate. However, as a result of the personal intervention of the Duke of Northumberland, the park and its surrounding wood-lands were purchased by the Sir James Knott Charitable Trust. This trust is justly renowned for its interest in preserving rural Northumberland. The trust's first action upon assuming ownership of the Park was to grant the Association a new Lease of the grazing rights for 999 years, thus ensuring the future of the Wild Cattle at Chillingham for the foreseeable future.

 Anyone wishing to apply for membership of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association should write to: The Secretary, Wardens Cottage, Chillingham, Alnwick, Northumberland. NE66 5NP. Telephone 01668 215 250.