Our traditional breeds of cattle have lively support from passionate breeders who take enormous care to ensure they survive and thrive.
An ancient breed, the Gloucester was originally tri-purpose, being used as oxen as well as for dairy and beef. A striking-looking animal, it has a dark mahogany body and a black head and legs, a white stripe passing from the small of the back, over the tail and udder and covering its underline and midlength horns that are white and tipped with black, sweeping upwards. In 1972, just one herd remained, despite the fact that this had once been an incredibly popular breed. Today, single Gloucester cheese is protected, while Double Gloucester isn’t – the former was the cheese usually consumed on the farm, while the latter was exported all over the world in the 18th century, including to the US.
Clifford Freeman, who farms in Gloucestershire, near Redmarley, says the breed is exceptionally quiet: “They are very docile and easy to deal with. The breed calves easily and has a very steady level of lactation, meaning they will have a long period of milking after calving. My father bought his first Gloucesters in 1971 and he had a cow that milked for two years despite not calving. The beef is fantastic – beautifully marbled and with a lot of flavour. Today they are more of a dual-purpose breed than a dairy one, as they haven’t been improved by cross-breeding with Holsteins, unlike many others, so just don’t produce the volume.”
Clifford’s cattle are grass fed, but he says, “They don’t stay out all winter, more because they poach the ground than because they can’t deal with the cold. Having said that, the breed was originally farmed on river meadows, so aren’t hardy to tougher conditions.”
NORTHERN DAIRY SHORTHORN
A range of colours exist from red, white, red and white or roan, with small upswept horns. Cows usually weigh around 550kg, with bulls at around 750kg. Charles Castle, a vet in Northamptonshire, says that, while most are friendly, “You do get the occasional stroppy one. We handle ours in a race, we don’t need to use a crush.”
While the Northern Dairy Shorthorn is in the same group as the other shorthorn breeds, it is genetically distinct, having been isolated from other shorthorns in the 1700s. Charles explains: “The Northern Dairy Shorthorn was a cow of the Dales, bred for upland areas. They need very little in the way of concentrate and are perfect for pure grass production.” Smaller, hairier and tougher, these cattle were effectively a closed herd until the early 1940s. Despite their name, they are effectively a dual-purpose breed, with a light bone structure and an ability to live purely on grass. “We usually slaughter at 30 months, and the meat is well marbled and has excellent flavour. The average milk production, which isn’t very high, would be between 4,000 and 6,000 litres per lactation, but a good level of butterfat at 4%. A huge advantage of the breed is that they calve very easily – the calves tend to be small. That’s why I chose the breed – as a vet I knew I would have to have cows that didn’t need much help, as I’d be looking after other people’s herds!” Of 110 calvings, Charles has only had to do anything in four. The cows are also long lived and fertile: “I had one cow who lived to 19, producing 14 calves in that time. The calves may be small when they are born but they grow quickly.”
With their eponymous long horns, which can curve straight out from the head or turn towards the mouth, the Longhorn is instantly recognisable. The horns must contain no black, and the hooves should not be black either. The colour is normally a brindled red, with a white line down the centre of the back, while a white patch on each thigh is particularly desirable.
Pat and John Stanley, of Blackbrook Longhorns, based near Coalville in Leicestershire breed Longhorns primarily for pedigree, “Though we do butcher the ‘failures’, the ones that aren’t good enough for breeding. They make unbelievably good eating. With young bulls, you can either feed them concentrate and eat them at 15 months, or, as grass-fed steers or heifers, they’re ready between 22 and 30 months. It’s very marbled meat, and cooks beautifully.” The Blackbrook Longhorns won “Best Meat in Britain”, a Country Life award, in 2012.
“They’re very docile, very easy to deal with,” John says, “And they calve easily. We keep many of the males as bulls.” The Longhorn is now widely exported, and there are some 10,000 females. As to hardiness, John says the only reason to bring them in is to avoid poaching the fields, “They’re more than happy outdoors all year round otherwise.”
The Hereford has a dark red body with a white face, crest, dewlap and underline, though white markings can often be seen below the knees and hocks as well. Medium-length horns are always downward curving. The modern Hereford is one of the most widespread breeds in the world thanks to its adaptability and its ability to graze on poor soil, in any conditions, and yet still produce good beef. There are herds of Modern Herefords from the Russian Steppes to the American Prairies, but these are not to be confused with the Original Population Herefords which Helen Macleod breeds. These Original Population Herefords must have no imported blood and will be able to trace their descent entirely from the British Hereford Herd Book which was closed in 1886.
Helen has a small herd, near Malvern, which she grazes on wildflower meadows that have 20 species per square metre in parts:
“They were bred to be thrifty, stocky and sturdy and have a high output from a low input. I don’t feed mine anything but grass and, in the winter, hay. The traditional Hereford is definitely tough enough to be outside all year, but we are on heavy clay and it would damage the meadows too much during winter so they are in and feeding on hay from November to early April, depending on the conditions.”
Helen manages her herd entirely on her own, which is testimony to their good natures. “They are very quiet, very docile. They calve easily, and Hereford bulls were often put to dairy cows to ensure an easy calving and a good carcass on the calf.”
The Original Population Herefords breed very true, according to Helen, “While those that have bloodlines that may have come from Herefords that were exported to North America, for example, many have been bred to prioritise height or frame size over easy fleshing, calving and ease of management.
“The worldwide breed has seen a huge rate of change, as they had to adapt to very different conditions from the Welsh Marches from where the breed originated, but the Traditionals offer the breeder genetics of guaranteed provenance.”
Helen sells boxes of her beef, and says that the meat is well marbled and flavoursome: “We slaughter at between 24 and 30 months, and then hang the meat for between 21 and 28 days. They’re a thrifty animal, producing well meated high value 300kg carcasses, which many butchers prefer to the bigger breeds as they are more manageable. They’re long-lived, too. Bulls and cows will work to a great age and on reaching the end of their breeding lives will produce a good weight of carcass.”