Wild Cattle - The Chillingham herd


Wild Cattle in Britain
The Chillingham Herd

Domesticated cattle

Britain's wild cattle

The Chillingham herd

Table: Diseases investigated in the Chillingham herd

Possible threat of public access to the park

Links, sources and further reading

downloadable as a Word doc

Chillingham cattle
(picture from Whitepark.org.uk)

Domesticated cattle

Cattle are domesticated ungulates, a member of the subfamily Bovinae of the family Bovidae, a family that also includes e.g. goats, sheep, bison and antelope. Domesticated cattle are raised for meat, dairy products, and leather, as well as to be used as draught animals (pulling carts and plows). The word cattle derives from the Latin caput (head) and means unit of livestock or one head. There are 3.8 million dairy and beef cattle in the UK (figures from 2005). Including younger calves and heifers, the figure is about 10.4 million.

There are two different domestic breeds of cattle; Bos indicus (zebu) and Bos taurus (taurine), differentiated by the presence or absence of a hump, and they both derived from the aurochs, Bos primigenius.

(picture from

Bos indicus mainly occurs in tropical regions and Bos taurus mainly in temperate regions. Recently the two breeds as well as the aurochs have been grouped as one species, with the subspecies Bos primigenius taurus, Bos primigenius indicus and Bos primigenius primigenius. The dairy cattle in the UK today are mainly Friesian/Holstein, derived from Bos taurus. The use of artificial insemination has contributed to the high production levels of these domesticated cattle.

There seem to be two theories of how the aurochs became domesticated. One theory is that the two domesticated breeds mentioned above originated from the same species 8,000-11,000 years ago. The second theory is that the two breeds originated from two subspecies of the aurochs in different locations. Examination of DNA (Loftus et al. 1994) showed that there are two distinct lineages, one European (taurine breeds)/African (a cross between zebu and taurine breeds) and one Indian (zebu breeds), supporting the theory that the domestication occurred in different locations, and the domestication could have happened 200,000 to 1 million years ago.

Aurochs in Britain became extinct during the Bronze Age (2200-700 BC), but these aurochs had no genetic contribution to Britain's domesticated cattle. Domesticated European cattle are thought to be descended directly from the domestication of the aurochs in the Near East mentioned above. The last aurochs were killed by poachers in Masovia, Poland, in 1627. Human breeders have attempted to recreate the species by crossing commercial breeds, creating the Heck cattle breed, see picture below.

Heck cattle
(picture from Wikipedea)

The closest living wild relatives of the European domestic cattle are bantengs, Bos Javanicus, and gaur, Bos gaurus, in South East Asia. Bantengs are endangered and the world population is unlikely to be more than 8,000 and could be fewer than 5,000 animals. Gaurs are classified as vulnerable, and there are an estimated 13,000-30,000 left. Both bantengs and gaur are threatened by hunting, loss of habitat, disease transmission from domestic cattle, and interbreeding with domestic and semi-feral cattle. Like many other horned mammals they are valued by humans for their horns.

(© WWF-Canon / Helena Telkanranta)

(© WWF Cambodia / SWAP)

Bantengs and gaurs form small herds of 10-30 individuals. Dairy cattle in the UK have an average herd size of 70, although sometimes there can be up to 150 individuals in the same herd. In the wild, several herds of bantengs or gaurs may get together during breeding season. Young males often form bachelor groups. There is a strict social hierarchy in a herd based on matriarchal families. The highest ranking individual has priority to food, shelter and water, and the offspring inherits its mother's status. Calves often form lifelong relationships when only a few days old, and the social bonds are reinforced through mutual grooming. A new member or separation of a herd is very stressful to the herd.

Cattle have poor depth perception and they are therefore reluctant to enter dark or shadowy areas and they also react to e.g. changes in floor surface and shadows. They have good hearing, which is superior to humans' hearing, and cattle are sensitive to loud, sudden noises.

The colour of cattle is due to its origin, but also to genetic modification; e.g. the Celts thought red animals symbolised fertility and crops, black animals pestilence and death, and white animals the worship of the sun (Alderson 1992), which might have led to selective breeding of the cattle to produce these colours.

Britain's wild cattle

Animals (human and non-human species) have colonised and re-colonised Britain several times in the past, maybe from as early as 700,000 years ago. Due to several glaciations most species have had to move south from Britain several times to avoid the cold and the glaciers. One of these glaciations was the last major cold event, which peaked around 18,000 years ago. Britain was then connected to the continent. Further fluctuations in the climate followed, before the current warm phase (the Holocene) began about 10,000 years ago. Humans and large land mammals, including wild cattle, crossed the land bridge before Britain was disconnected from the mainland.

Today, there are six "wild" cattle herds in Britain; the Chillingham, Vaynol, Dyneros, Woburn, Whipsnade and Cadzow herds, but not all of them are wild or pure-breed anymore since most of them are domesticated to some extent. The Chillingham herd is by most people considered to be truly wild as they have been isolated in the Chillingham park for 750 years with little human interference. This will be discussed further below.


The Chillingham herd

The Chillingham park

The Chillingham cattle are white cattle, most likely remnants of Britain's wild cattle. The herd of 62 individuals resides in a 365-acre (148 ha) park, the Chillingham Park, in Northumberland, northern England, owned by the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association (CWCA), a registered charity. This park was enclosed in 1270 AD and the cattle have been isolated from other cattle and from most human interference since then (there is as little contact with humans as possible). The park is open to the public, but visitors must be accompanied by a warden.

The cattle are likely to be descended from the aurochs, a theory which is supported by the similarities in cranial geometrics and the positioning of the horns relative to the skull design. However, another theory suggests that the Chillingham breed is descended from feral cattle, click here for further information.

Other species that can be seen in the Chillingham park are e.g. roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), fallow deer (Cervus dama) and several bird species, as well as tree species such as alders (Alnus sp.), beeches (Fagus sp.) and oaks (Quercus sp.). There are also 300 breeding ewes in the park. The total stocking density of the park is 0.48 livestock unit per hectare.

Biology and Behaviour of the Cattle

The isolation of the Chillingham cattle means that for the last 750 years the herd has had no contact with other cattle. This isolation and the small size of the population in the past have lead to a decrease in genetic variability, creating a genetic bottleneck. (A genetic bottleneck is when there are few individuals left in a population and the population experiences a decline in genetic variability over time. Genetic bottlenecks can have devastating effects on the variability and fitness of a population). The Chillingham herd is almost genetically uniform, but there seems to be no reduction in fertility so far.

Chillingham cattle
(picture from Northumberland.gov.uk)

An adult Chillingham cow weighs 280 kg on average, compared to American bison, Bison bison, 1360kg and domestic cattle 300-400kg depending on the species. The small population size of the Chillingham cattle has most likely brought about the cattle evolving into a smaller size. Chillingham cows will mature at the age of 3-4 years while bulls will mature at the age of 18-20 months, and life expectancy is 17 years for cows and 13 for bulls. This is compared to American Bison, 18-22 years (or 35-40 years in captivity), and other cattle, 20-50 years depending on the species, although e.g. a dairy cow will only live for 4-7 years before worn out and slaughtered, often ending up as meat for hamburgers.

The Chillingham is a rare opportunity to study the natural behaviour of cattle practically free from human interference. The herd is one of a few cattle herds in the world that has a natural or nearly natural sex ratio and age distribution. Most other cattle in the world are farmed animals slaughtered at an early age.

Roughly one fourth of the Chillingham females will have a calf each year. The cows reach reproductive age at the age of 3 to 4, and as the dominant bull normally reigns for 2 to 3 years the chances of inbreeding are fairly low. The cows will calve away from the herd, and the calf will be introduced into the herd and initially greeted by the dominant bull. A dam will suckle her calf 4-6 times a day. A Chillingham female calf will suckle until it is nine months old and stay with its mother for life. A male is weaned at 12 months old.

In modern day farming the calves of dairy cows will be taken from their mothers immediately after birth or sometimes after 1 or 2 days. A dairy cow will be forced to have a calf every year so that she will produce milk, which means she will be pregnant 9 out of 12 to 13 months. The cow will be milked twice or three times a day instead of having the calf suckle 4-6 times a day.

Dairy cattle
(picture from www.vet.ed.ac.uk)

The intensive methods of farming produce 10,000 liters of milk a year per cow, an average of 27 liters a day (which is 15 times more than what would be produced naturally). This means that the cows are under constant stress, which causes health problems. A high percentage suffers from mastitis, a bacterial infection of the udders, and viruses responsible for respiratory and diarrheal disorder are also common in modern dairies. The high-protein diet they are given (as a diet of grass would not produce as much milk) can cause lameness. Other factors that increase the risk of lameness (which is very high in dairy cows) are abnormally large udders, the environment, feeding habits and housing.

Cattle, if they are allowed to, would spend 4-14 hours grazing and 9-12 hours lying down. The Chillingham herd will graze during summer around dusk and dawn and during mid-morning and early afternoon. During winter there might be some night-time grazing. The cattle can graze up to 3 hours at a time and females graze longer than males in summer.

Diseases and threats

The Chillingham cattle are white with red-brown ears and markings, and black spotting on the shoulders. They never seem to have calves that are any other colour, or even partly coloured. All animals have horns. There are records of the size of the Chillingham herd dating back to 1692 and the largest numbers were 80 individuals in 1838. In 1947, due to a severe winter and previous droughts leading to a lack of fodder, only 13 individuals survived. However, as of 2006 the numbers are 62. In 1968 there was an outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease in Northumberland. The disease never reached the Chillingham herd, but after this threat a small reserve herd (currently of 12 individuals) was set up near Elgin in north-east Scotland.

Some welfare implications in the herd are calving difficulties and abandonment of calves. Several cows died due to magnesium deficiency in the early 1980s. Therefore, magnesium limestone has been applied to 6 ha of land each year. Bracken cutting has been carried out since 1992 to increase the supply of herbage. The Chillingham cattle have been fed hay in the winter since at least 1721, this is because the cattle cannot roam freely outside the park to seek out enough food to survive the winter. The hay is purchased from an organic local farm. The cattle are also fed compound feed approved by the Soil Association in winter to try to improve the nutritional status of the calves. The cattle usually don't go under cover or seek shelter.

The nearest outbreak of the Foot and Mouth disease in 2001 occurred 10km from Chillingham. In the event of a future outbreak, vaccination could be an option under an EU Directive, although he Chillingham Wild Cattle Association (CWCA) has concerns of the handling of the animals as well as the possible risks of a vaccine in these homozygous cattle. There is no evidence of any notifiable diseases in the herd and the cattle have never been identified with tuberculosis (an animal health problem currently facing the farming industry in Great Britain, click here for further info). Hall et al. (2005) thinks the homozygosity of the herd might make it highly vulnerable to disease, although other sources suggest the homozygosity could make them more resistant. This would probably depend on the genes and the disease. Since 1950 some diseases have been investigated in 64 individuals given a post-mortem examination.

Diseases investigated in the Chillingham herd

Disease investigated
Disease found
Cause of death
Similar disease in domesticated cattle
Bacterial diseases
Histological evidence of mild Johne's disease, 1963. Johne's disease, 2005. Bovine tuberculosis not observed Johne's disease in 2005 Johne's disease is an infectious condition
caused by Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis. The disease results in diarrhea, severe weight loss, and infertility. It is notifiable in Northern Ireland but not in the rest of the UK. Estimates of herd prevalence of 1% and 17.5% in the UK
1945 - February 2005 Cause of death of 8 cows or heifers (1.8% of calvings have resulted in the death of the dam) 5 % of births in dairy cattle, assistance with calving needed
Haematopinus eurysternus (louse), 1977 No obvious louse infestation Can cause hair loss, irritation and loss of body condition in housed cattle at any age
Worms found: Ostertagia sp., 1983 Trichostrongyles sp., 1983 Cooperia sp., 1983 Fascioliasis sp., 1963 & 2005 No evidence of parasites in post-mortem Ostertagia and Dictocaulus sp. In calves mainly in summer months in their first grazing season, and sometimes in the later winter months
1980. Symptoms: high excitability, falling over with spasms in the legs, death due to heart failure Cause of death of 6 lactating cows Mainly in animals on spring grass (low in Mg content) and occasionally on autumn grass (foggage or fog fever: when hungry cattle that have been on dry feed for some time are allowed free access to rapidly growing, lush green feed)
Intraocular melanoma with secondaries to the liver, 2002
Ocular disease
New forest disease widespread in the herd in the late 1970s Commonly associated with trauma and secondary bacterial infection New forest disease is an infectious bovine
keratoconjunctivitis, a group of eye
diseases of cattle which can lead to impaired
vision or blindness if left untreated. Causes can be bacteria, viruses, fungi and worms. It can be successfully treated and cleared up overnight.
Signs of the disease are runny and sore eyes with ulcers in the eye surrounded by a
red area. Flies can spread the infection. One prevention is to use eartags
impregnated with insecticide to help control fly infestation
Skeletal and dental defects
Calf born without a tail, 1999
Testicular hypoplasia
In yearling bulls
1945 - 2005 Cause of death of 14 bulls and females due to injuries caused by other members of the herd Trauma is the cause of injury in domestic cattle due to e.g. overcrowding, stress and long transports

Possible threat of public access to the park

The Right to Roam under the CROW Act 2000 (Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) gives access of open country and registered common land to the public. The Chillingham Wild Cattle Association (CWCA) has submitted a formal application to have the park closed to public access (under Section 5 of the Act relating to public danger), and is awaiting a decision on this.

Another threat is plans to build a deer-hunting lodge in the park, which could disturb the herd, see Fears for herd in hunting bid. However, this seems to have been thrown out by the borough councillors, see Wild cattle 'threat' is averted.

There are several articles about the Chillingham herd in our database, available from our home page (search in the data base on the right hand column).


Links, sources and further reading

The Chillingham Wild Cattle Association was formed in 1939 to take care of the herd. Another charity, the Sir James Knott Charitable Trust, owns the land and has leased the grazing rights to the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association for 999 years.

Opening times are 1 April until 31 October: Monday-Saturday (excluding Tuesday) 10am-12 noon, Monday-Sunday (excluding Tuesday) 2pm-5pm. See their website for up-to-date opening times. admission prices and a map.


Sir James Knott Charitable Trust
Brigadier J.F.F. Sharland
Sir James Knott 1990 Trust
16-18 Hood Street

Chillingham Wild Cattle Association
The Secretary
Chillingham Wild Cattle
The Warden's Cottage
NE66 5NP


Countryside and Rights of Way

White Park Cattle

Chillingham Wild Cattle

Chillingham cattle

Hall, S. et al., 2005. Management of the Chillingham Wild White Cattle. Government Veterinary Journal 15(2): 4-11
Available from here

Visscher, P.M., Smith, D., Hall, S.J.G. and Williams, J.L., 2001. A Viable Herd of Genetically Uniform Cattle. Nature 409: 303
Available from here

Hall, S.J.G. and Hall, J.G., 1988. Inbreeding and population Dynamics of the Chillingham Cattle (Bos taurus). Journal of Zoology, 216(2): 479-493 abstract available from here

Hemming, J, 2002. Bos primigenius in Britain: or, why do fairy cows have red ears? - Research Article - Critical Essay, available from here, accessed September 19, 2006

History of cattle

Alderson, L. The Categorization of Types and Breeds of Cattle in Europe. Archivos de zootecnia, 41(154): 325

Cymbron, T., Freeman, A.R., Malheiro, M.I., Vigne, J-D. and Bradley, D.G., 2005. Microsatellite Diversity Suggests Different Histories for Mediterranean and Northern European Cattle Populations. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 272(1574): 1837-1943

Loftus, R.T., MacHugh, D.E., Bradley, D.G., Sharp, P.M. and Cunningham, P., 1994. Evidence for Two Independent Domestications of Cattle. PNAS, 91: 2757-2761
Available from here

Conservation status of wild cattle

A table showing increasing or declining trends in the different species, available from here, accessed 19 September 2006


Viva, 2005, The dark side of dairy, available from here, accessed 19 September 2006

UFAW, 1999. Management and Welfare of Farm Animals, Halstan & Co, Amersham

Fraser, A.F. & Broom, D.M.,1990. Farm Animal Behaviour and Welfare. Balliere Tindall, London

DEFRA, 2006. Stats 04/06: Agricultural and Horticultural census: June 2005, United Kingdom, available from here, accessed 19 September 2006

Farm Sanctuary, 2005. The welfare of cattle in dairy farming, available from here, accessed 19 September 2006

Guars and Bantengs

WWF, undated, Introducing the Gaur and Banteng, available from here, accessed 19 September 2006

<< PAGE TOP >>


Registered Charity No. 1045293
© VEGA - 2008


  Animal Welfare
Veganizing Ingredients
Sheep Farming
Poultry Farming
Research projects