Chillingham cattle

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Coordinates: 55°31′30″N 1°53′02″W / 55.525°N 1.884°W / 55.525; -1.884

Chillingham cattle
A number of Chillingham cattle grazing
A portion of the Chillingham Cattle herd grazing
Chillingham cattle is located in Northumberland
Chillingham cattle
Chillingham cattle
 Chillingham cattle shown within Northumberland
OS grid reference NU074256
List of places

Chillingham cattle a.k.a. Chillingham wild cattle are a breed of cattle that live in a large enclosed park at Chillingham Castle, Northumberland, England. This rare breed consists of about 90 animals in Chillingham, which inhabit a very large park that has existed since the Middle Ages.[1] The herd has remained remarkably genetically isolated for hundreds of years, surviving despite inbreeding depression due to the small population.[2] There is also a small reserve herd of about 20 animals located on Crown Estate land near Fochabers, North East Scotland.[3]

Description of cattle[edit]

The Chillingham cattle are related to White Park cattle, in the sense that the Chillingham herd has contributed to the White Park, though there has been no gene flow the other way. Chillingham cattle are small, with upright horns in both males and females. Bulls weigh around 300 kg, cows about 280 kg. They are white with coloured ears (they may also have some colour on feet, nose and around the eyes). In the case of Chillingham cattle, the ear-colour is red – in most White Park animals the ears are black (which is genetically dominant over red in cattle). Chillingham cattle are of generally primitive conformation while White Parks are of classical British beef conformation.

Description of the Northumberland habitat[edit]

To many visitors, the most striking element of the historic habitat at Chillingham is the widespread occurrence of large oak trees amongst grassland (wood pasture), providing a glimpse of Britain as many think it appeared in medieval times. However, most of these trees were only planted in the 1780s - early 19th century, and the truly ancient trees of the Park are the streamside alder trees, which were probably coppiced in the mid 18th century. They were probably hundreds of years old even then and the stems now growing are themselves around 250 years old. A diversity of plants and animals find a habitat here, due to the absence of the intensive farming found in most other places in Britain.

The Northumberland site is also home to a variety of other species including red squirrel, fox, and badger, as well as roe deer and fallow deer.[4] There are approximately 55 bird species, including Common Buzzards, European Green Woodpeckers, and the Eurasian Nuthatch which claims this latitude as its northernmost range in the United Kingdom.

An on-site warden at the park ( leads small groups on foot to find the Chillingham cattle herd; on some days they are evident in one of the easily accessible meadows, while on other days they are virtually impossible to find, given the tangled woodlands and the amount of space they have for roaming. Just to the east of the park is the summit of Ros Hill. The cattle are not visible from this viewpoint, which does however give an impressive view over much of north Northumberland. With support from Defra, a network of paths has been created around the periphery of Chillingham Park (

Ancestry and history of the Chillingham cattle[edit]

Edwin Landseer: The Wild Cattle of Chillingham (1867, oil on canvas).

According to earlier publicity material produced by the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, Chillingham cattle bear some similarities to the extinct ancestral species Aurochs, Bos primigenius primigenius, based upon cranial geometrics and the positioning of their horns relative to the skull formation. They further claim that Chillingham cattle may be direct descendants of the primordial ox "which roamed these islands before the dawn of history";[5][6] moreover, according to Tankerville, these characteristics differed from the cattle brought into England by the Romans. It is also possible that they are descended from medieval husbanded cattle that were impounded when Chillingham Park was enclosed. In the absence of adequate genetic or archaeological evidence, these proposed origins must remain purely speculative.[7]

The first written record of the herd dates from 1645 but the Chillingham herd is claimed by some to have been in this same site for at least seven centuries. Before the 13th century, this breed is claimed to have "roamed the great forest which extended from the North Sea coast to the Clyde estuary" according to the Countess of Tankerville. During the 13th century, the King of England licensed Chillingham Castle to become "castellated and crenolated" and a drystone wall may well have been built then to enclose the herd. At that time, there was particular concern about Scottish marauders, which explains also the massive build-up of fortification of the nearby Dunstanburgh Castle at the same time.[8]

The wall that visitors see at Chillingham was built in the early 19th century to enclose the 1,500 acres (610 ha) of Chillingham Park. As of 2009, the cattle have 330 acres (130 ha) to roam and the rest of the ground is woodland or farmland.


Chillingham bulls contributed genetically to White Park herds in the early 20th century, but the Chillingham herd has remained pure. Some degree of genetic affinity between Chillingham and White Park cattle would therefore be predicted, but this has not been investigated. They are closely related to the Vaynol cattle breed.

Dr. J. G. Hall of the Edinburgh Animal Breeding Research Organisation studied the blood groups of the Chillingham herd.[9] The herd was found to be remarkably homozygous, and this is what would be expected from their long history of inbreeding. These findings were confirmed in a later microsatellite DNA study.[10] Mitochondrial DNA studies have not yet been conducted.


The Chillingham cattle herd are not domesticated in any way, and are wild animals. Their behaviour may therefore give some insight into the behaviour of ancestral wild cattle.

They breed all year round and bulls occupy and share "home territories" with other members of the herd, and with as many as two or three other bulls. Home ranges overlap and are not thought of as defended territories although bulls participate in sparring matches with their home range partners.[11]

Modern history[edit]

In 1939, the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association Limited was formed to study and protect these special creatures. However the herd's population decreased, and reached a minimum in the unusually hard winter of 1946-1947, which only 13 animals survived. Upon the death of Lord Tankerville in 1971 the Chillingham herd was bequeathed to the Association; however, when the estate was sold in 1980, with the help of Duke of Northumberland the Park was purchased by the Sir James Knott Trust (a philanthropic organisation dedicated to protecting Northumberland for the benefit of all). It was then managed by the Knott Trust's agents: College Valley Estates (CVE). CVE granted a 999 year lease of the park to the association. In 2005, after a fund-raising campaign, the association purchased the park and surrounding woodlands. Thus, the herd and the park were reunited under the same ownership. Soon after, the association was able to purchase the sheep grazing rights, which were owned by a neighbour. The flock was removed, and this means a programme of remediation of the pasture and trees can be put into effect.

In July 2009, the herd numbers 85 animals. There is also a small reserve herd of about 20 head located on Crown Estates land near Fochabers in north-east Scotland.

Other herds of white cattle[edit]

In 1759 the Earl of Eglinton formed a herd of the ancient breed of white or Chillingham cattle at Ardrossan in North Ayrshire, Scotland, probably using stock from the Cadzow Castle herd. The numbers dropped and in 1820 the remaining animals were dispersed. All the animals in this herd were hornless.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ BBC Countryfile, 1 November 2009
  2. ^ Visscher et al.: Viable Herd of Genetically Uniform Cattle, Nature 409 (18 January 2001), p 303)
  3. ^ "The Crown Estate > Fochabers". The Crown Estate. 2010. Archived from the original on 7 February 2011. 
  4. ^ The Wild Cattle of Chillingham, brochure of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, Chillingham, Alnwick, UK
  5. ^ Dowager Countess of Tankerville, patron, Chillingham Wild Cattle Association, The Wild White Cattle of Chillingham, Chillingham, Alnwick, England
  6. ^ Dowager Countess of Tankerville. "The Wild White Cattle of Chillingham". White Park Cattle Society Ltd. Archived from the original on 8 February 2004. 
  7. ^ "Bos primigenius in Britain: or, why do fairy cows have red ears?",, Jessica Hemming, April, 2002, accessed September 13, 2006
  8. ^ C. M. Hogan, History and architecture of Dunstanburgh Castle, Lumina Technologies, Aberdeen, Scotland, July, 2006
  9. ^ Hall SJG & Hall JG, 1988, "Inbreeding and population dynamics of the Chillingham cattle (Bos taurus)": Journal of Zoology, London, 216, pp 479–493
  10. ^ Visscher PM et al., 2001, "A viable herd of genetically uniform cattle": Nature, 409, p 303
  11. ^ Hall, Stephen (1988). "The White Herd of Chillingham". Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society of England (Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire: Royal Agricultural Society of England) 150: 112–119. Archived from the original on 8 July 2011. 
  12. ^ Turner, Robert (1889). The Cadzow White Herd of Cattle. Proc & Trans Nat Soc Glasgow, Vol II. Page 239

Further reading[edit]

  • Race, Breed and Myths of Origin - Chillingham Cattle as Ancient Britons in: Harriet Ritvo: Noble Cows and Hybrid Zebras: Essays on Animals and History, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, Virginia 2010, ISBN 978-0-8139-3060-2

External links[edit]