November 2015 – Wild Cattle of Chillingham

The November talk for the Alnwick and District Local History Society, about the “Wild White Cattle of Chillingham”, was given by Philip Deakin, President of the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association (CWCA).  This organisation is responsible for the welfare of the cattle, and ensure that the park in which they roam is secure and suitable for them.

Their origin is not precisely known, but genetic analysis shows similarities to Neolithic cattle.  They look very like some of the paintings of prehistoric cattle in the caves at Lascaux, France.  It is thought that they once roamed the Caledonian Forest, moving further south to other areas of woodland, which have open areas of grass, which the Chillingham park replicates.  The trees provide shelter.  Young calves are kept hidden here, until they are strong enough to be accepted into the herd by the King Bull, their father.

The cattle are small and short-lived, with bulls generally dying when they less than 12 years old, whilst the oldest cow recorded was 17½.  Older cows serve as grannies, training their daughters in mothering skills. Young bulls fight to become King Bull, which will father all the calves as long as they maintain their position, generally just a few years.  Cows usually calve on a  four-year cycle, so each calf is likely to have a different father.  There are interesting exceptions to this pattern.  After the disastrous winter of 1946/7, when there were only 13 animals left, the cows went into a two-year cycle till numbers picked up.  Numbers stabilised at about 40-50, until recently.  Sheep were grazing the same land, but the licence for this was purchased by the CWCA, and only the cattle remained  Their numbers have increased greatly, and the herd now has 105 cattle.

Until 2005, the land was owned by the College Valley Estates, who let the park to the CWCA for a small rent.  Experiencing financial problems, they sold out to the CWCA, which had to raise a large sum to enable this.  Grant aid has also enabled them to provide the Deer Hemmel – a new visitor centre with an excellent exhibition – to start work on replacing old trees with native species, to repair walls and improve the drainage system.  They now have a new young, enthusiastic warden, Ellie Crossley.  A book about Chillingham, including a section on the cattle, will be published next year.

The next meeting of the Society will be held on 26th January 2016 at 7.30pm at Bailiffgate Museum (doors open at 7pm), when Peter Carter will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of George Tate’s History of Alnwick.