Cattle Farming: Celtic Cattle
The one common characteristic of Celtic cattle is their ability to live in upland areas on marginal land.
These ancient cattle had become unfashionable over the centuries, but they are now finding favour again in a changing economic climate.
The short-horned cattle introduced in relatively recent times to the British Isles are now the dominant breeds here. The Shorthorns and Friesians, first imported from the Low Countries about 400 years ago, have displaced the native dairy breeds, while the contemporary interest in exotic beef breeds is filling British pastures with cream and mushroom coloured animals.
Old-established breeds, known colloquially as Celtic cattle, were long ago pushed to the western and northern fringes of the country, where they continued as minority breeds. In recent years interest in conservation has focused attention again on these old breeds, and they now thrive in small numbers in many areas.
The different breeds of Celtic cattle survived in limited areas, becoming adapted to the peculiar conditions under which they were reared. The Kerry is a black specialist dairy breed, whereas theis a dun-coloured hill breed intended primarily for meat production. However, all the breeds are hardy, thrifty cattle that can live in areas of low fertility. Although their yields and standards of production are relatively modest, they can live where more popular breeds would not survive.
The Kerry is found mainly in south-west Ireland, with the largest herd in Muckross Park on the shores of Lough Leane at Killarney. A hundred years ago the Kerry was the dominant breed in Ireland, but its territory was gradually reduced until it was confined almost solely to the Dingle Peninsula.
The Kerry has a lean and angular conformation, typical of dairy breeds. It is relatively small. The bulls are temperamental and aggressive, also a characteristic of dairy breeds. The colour is black, although it has not always been so. A century ago colours such as brown, and also extensive white markings, were found within the breed. The cattle have an alert demeanour, enhanced by slender, graceful, uptilted horns. Their style and appearance is well attuned to the wild and beautiful hills of their native area.
Kerry cattle are noted for their longevity and high yields of milk in relation to their size. Brookwood Primrose yielded 44,903 litres (9,877 gal) in her lifetime — approximately 125 times her own body weight. The Kerry is a specialist dairy breed, with no pretensions to meat production, and it is likely to continue as a smallholders’ cow in those areas of Ireland which will not support larger, more productive breeds. It is well suited to systems of production that do not rely on expensive high-energy feeds.
The Dexter is closely related to the Kerry, but its exact origins are uncertain. The earliest record of the breed was in Ireland in the 18th century. It resembles a short-legged and beefy type of Kerry, the small size being partly associated with a ‘dwarf gene’. The legs are short and the conformation may be deformed to a varying extent when the dwarf gene is present. Compared with the Kerry, the head is short and broad, and the body deeper and more compact. The horns are shorter and less graceful. Black is the most usual colour, but red and dun specimens are also found.
The Dexter consumes little more than half the amount eaten by larger breeds. Because of its light weight it causes less damage to the land, and can be managed more easily by a stockman. The average milk yield is 2370 litres (520 gal) for every lactation. It is suitable for use as a house-cow, yielding sufficient milk in early lactation for its own calf and a typical family, and for a household alone after the calf is weaned. The steers fatten easily and produce small joints. The breed is popular in self-sufficiency systems, and in farm parks and amenity centres.
The Kyloe or Highland is another favourite breed in farm parks. Its long shaggy coat, with a fringe of hair falling over its face, the teddy-bear appearance of the young calf and the long wideswept horns, ensure its popularity with visitors. The usual colour is now a dun, with a few yellow/white, brindle or black animals, but the dominance of this colour results from selection determined by fashion : originally most animals were black.
The modern breed evolved from the fusion of two types. On the mainland of Scotland there was a larger type, known as the West Highland, while the smaller animals found on the islands gained their name (Kyloe) because they had to swim the kyles (straits) to reach the markets on the mainland. The long hair is essential to enable the cattle to survive the harsh conditions in the Highlands and Islands. The Highland is probably the hardiest British breed of cattle.
Females usually produce their first calf at three and a half years of age, compared with two or two and a half in more productive breeds. They mature slowly and late. In contrast to the Kerry breed, it is the Highland cows, not the bulls, that are aggressive.
The Shetland breed evolved in the northernmost part of the British Isles. It was given shelter by crofters, but had to survive on a limited amount of low quality feed, so it has become an efficient converter of poor roughage food. It provides a good yield of milk in relation to its size. It can do well on indifferent pasture and the beef is noted for its flavour. The size varies greatly, and the most universal colour is black and white, but only 50 years ago the range of colours included dun, red and white in a variety of patterns.
The temperament of the Shetland has been influenced by its close association with its owner. A cow often became so attached to the wife of the crofter that a square of her apron had to accompany the animal when it was sold before it would accept its new owner; it then became known as a ‘clouty cow’.