The Belted Galloway is one of our traditional native breeds (although it was only formally established as a separate breed in 1921.) They’re tough cattle, and can live on poor quality pasture and can cope with unpleasant weather conditions. When I was a child, one of the farms in the village nearest to us had to do everything differently. While every other farm in the parish milked Friesian cattle and used the Hereford bull to serve those cows they didn’t want dairy heifers off, he milked Ayrshires and used a Belted Galloway bull instead of the Hereford. His livestock were no better behaved and no worse behaved than anybody else’s.
Yet our Vet was based north of us and covered a lot of the South-West of the Lake District, and had to deal with a lot of farms where they ran suckler herds. Fifty years ago, one of these herds ran Belted Galloways. Orders came down from the Ministry than this herd had to be blood tested for brucellosis (there was an eradication scheme running at the time) so all the animals had to be brought in to blood test.
Apparently it was mayhem. This herd was barely domesticated. Whereas a dairy herd will come into close contact with humanity at least twice a day, a suckler herd is a far more ‘natural’ construct. They’ll be gathered for worming, and for weaning calves and suchlike, but they can go weeks with no more human contact than somebody passing through them as they graze the open fell.
In spite of everybody’s efforts, when they were gathered in the yard to test, the young heifers cornered the dog and killed it, and the bull broke loose and was finally tested when it charged the tractor and knocked itself out. So you can see the two extremes.
In the early 1980s I went to Iceland. The Icelanders imported Belted Galloway stock (from memory before the Second World War, but I could be wrong), and they were held on a quarantine island. They developed ringworm. Iceland didn’t have ringworm and they were determined not to get it. So all the cattle were slaughtered, but one pregnant cow had her calf delivered by caesarean first. That calf was kept from all other cattle and fortunately it didn’t catch the ringworm that the others had. Thanks to Artificial Insemination, that bull calf was at one time the father of all the Beltie cattle on Iceland.
When I was there, I was shown a Belted Galloway suckler herd. Shown is the right word. They were on one hill and we were on the other, and we were told we were lucky to get so close. Seriously, they were more nervous than deer. Yet I went to farms where they had calves born to a Belted Galloway sire. These calves had been taken off their milk cow mother at a day old, were bucket reared and they were so friendly they came across to get their ears scratched. Indeed in one pen there were three calves curled up snoozing happily, with the dog making a fourth.
So it’s not that this is a breed that is destined by nature to be feral. If handled and domesticated, they’re fine. It’s just that I saw the sad story of woman trampled to death by cattle at Linchmere Common. The cattle were belties. They are managed and owned by the Lynchmere Community Grazing CIC. Now here I speak from a position of complete ignorance, I know nothing about this august body save what they say on their website. There they have photos of Belties and a comment, “Lynchmere Community Grazing CIC (Community Interest Company) is a not-for-profit, member-led organisation that manages a herd of Belted Galloway cattle on the beautiful lowland heath landscape of the Lynchmere Commons in the South Downs National Park. We are reliant on our membership to keep these amazing and useful animals safe and happy.”
Now there is a very strong conservation argument for using cattle for conservation grazing. I agree with this entirely. There is also an argument that in these places it would be nice to use native breeds, if only to help preserve them. Here to, I’m in total agreement with this argument.
But the questions I have to ask myself are, “Does the Lynchmere Community Grazing CIC ‘farm’ these animals?” “Are they handled regularly?” “Do they make an effort to ensure they remain domesticated and are friendly towards people?”
On farms we do get dangerous animals. My father was hospitalised by a cow that knocked him down as she attacked the dog. I’ve been attacked by a bull but survived because I half expected it and was ready for it. But because we know the risks, we make the effort. In the modern world, because we’re the people who have to handle any dangerous cattle, we do our best to make sure we haven’t got any dangerous cattle. Somebody complained to me that a bull I had in a field might be dangerous and attack him. I merely pointed out that he was contemplating entering that field once. I went in every day, and had to move the group, including the bull, from one field to another as they needed more grazing.
If I had anything to do with environmental grazing on an area with a lot of public access, I suspect I’d handle things differently. If the conditions were reasonably soft, I’d be tempted to buy some elderly dairy cows who had come to the end of their working life and were not in calf. I’d summer them on the area. They’re used to people and are very unlikely to cause a problem.
If whoever was laying down the law over grazing wanted native breeds then I’d probably chose something like Herefords. They’re far more placid. Not only that but I’d have somewhere on the common where there was a loading pen and I could feed them every morning. It doesn’t take a lot of feed to ensure that they think of you as ‘the nice guy’ and one of life’s positive experiences. And when I was feeding them I’d just wander through them (useful for making sure everybody is OK) and just scratch a few ears.
Of course, the problem then would be they weren’t particularly bothered by people and would probably wander up and terrify people by scratching their heads on a person’s leg, or trying to get their nose into the bag the person was carrying to see if there was anything in it worth eating. But between ourselves, I’m happy enough to be asked to educate and domesticate cattle. Somebody else can do the far more difficult job of educating and domesticating people.
There again, what do I know? Check with the experts!
As a reviewer commented, “This is a selection of anecdotes about life as a farmer in Cumbria. The writer grew up on his farm, and generations of his family before him farmed the land. You develop a real feeling for the land you are hefted to and this comes across in these stories. We hear of the cattle, the sheep, his succession of working dogs, the weather and the neighbours, in an amusing and chatty style as the snippets of Jim Webster’s countryman’s wisdom fall gently. I love this collection.”