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They’ve managed to essentially purify their gene pool through inbreeding

The New York Times attributed an even more ancient sacrificial importance to the cattle, positing that they emerged after pre-Roman Celtic druids attempted, through “a process of segregation and selective slaughter”, to engineer an all-white version of the aurochs, the wild progenitor of all modern cattle species, for use in religious rituals.

The theory that the Chillingham cattle are the last relic of aurochs herds that once widely roamed Britain’s woodlands is seductive but misguided. “All modern-day European cattle were created as a result of domesticating the aurochs when man started farming thousands of years ago,” explained Ellie Waddington, Crossley’s sister and fellow cattle warden. “I wouldn’t describe the Chillingham cattle as any more closely related to them than any other modern breed, but they do give us a real insight into how the aurochs may have behaved. The herd structure, the psychology, the mating rituals and so on – nowhere else can you see and study a truly natural herd structure.”

Unusually compared to dairy breeds, the Chillingham herd have a 50/50 gender split, and they produce young year-round. Competition among the males is fierce, bloody and occasionally fatal; as these are wild animals, the wardens let nature run its course. “Eye injuries, broken ribs, puncture wounds – we have no veterinary intervention at all,” said Crossley. “That doesn’t sit right with everyone, but they’re wild animals; they don’t want our help.”

The limit of human involvement is leaving hay for the animals in the harsh winters and putting them out of their misery if they are sick or injured beyond the point of recovery. It’s just as well that the cattle all look identical, so it’s impossible to identify individuals. “Given that the only way we can assist them if they’re suffering is to shoot them, it’s best not to be on a first-name basis,” said Crossley.

The reason for their homogeneity is centuries of inbreeding, to the point that the cattle are essentially genetic clones. The damaging effects of inbreeding are well known – many scientific studies have shown that it causes animal populations to be more prone to birth defects and infectious diseases than those that draw on a wide gene pool. If you’ve ever seen a Habsburg jaw gurning down at you from one of the great portrait halls of Europe, you’ll know that it’s not a good idea in humans, either.

Chillingham wild cattle are known to have a fierce and unpredictable temperament (Credit: Daniel Stables)
Chillingham wild cattle are known to have a fierce and unpredictable temperament (Credit: Daniel Stables)

Ordinarily, inbreeding causes populations to die out, but, by a quirk of evolutionary fate, it has had the opposite effect in the Chillingham cattle – a trait unique in the natural world. “Being isolated, they’ve managed to essentially purify their gene pool through inbreeding, to the point where they’re natural clones of each other and there’s not enough diversity to cause harmful mutations,” explained Crossley. “It goes against everything we know about inbreeding.” The cattle themselves take steps to maintain this genetic equilibrium. “The last calf to be born with a mutation was about 20 years ago, and it was missing its tail. The mother abandoned it and it died within about 24 hours, and that was it. Whatever caused that mutation didn’t get passed on.”

They’ve managed to essentially purify their gene pool through inbreeding, to the point where they’re natural clones of each other
If that sounds cruel, maybe it’s because the Chillingham cattle have learned the lessons of survival the hard way, with the herd having nearly died out on several occasions. “They were down to five bulls and eight cows in the harsh winter of early 1947,” said Hall. “The main threat facing them, though, is diseases, such as foot-and-mouth.” That very illness almost saw off the cattle in 1967, getting within two miles of the park; any closer and the cattle would have been culled. That prompted the establishment of a backup herd in a secret location in Scotland and a store of frozen embryos.

For now, though, the herd is thriving. The population is at its biggest since record-keeping began at the behest of Charles Darwin in the 19th Century; and Waddington has christened the latest cohort of young bulls “The Hoodies” for their boisterous disregard for their elders. Modern visitors to the park are confronted with a sight unchanged since the medieval era: a population of rare genetic outliers, living in a wild state as they have done for hundreds of years. Just don’t get too close.

Hidden Britain is a BBC Travel series that uncovers the most wonderful and curious of what Britain has to offer, by exploring quirky customs, feasting on unusual foods and unearthing mysteries from the past and present.

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