Belties

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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.”

https://lynchmeregrazing.com/

 

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.”

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19 thoughts on “Belties

  1. Sue Vincent September 21, 2019 at 3:37 pm Reply

    There was a beautiful herd of Highland cattle on the Edge at Curbar until recently…there was an incident with a holidaymaker’s dog (kept on a leash) and cows with calves. The cows were ordered from land they have grazed for forty years…
    It seems rather unfair when the cows are just doing what cows, and mothers of all species, are supposed to do.
    I’ll be the first to admit that my dog’s manners and social graces are, if not non-existent, then at least erratic. Also that the cows and local bull are far more interested in her than she is in them…unless they stick their heads over ‘her’ fence, when she will do her job and tell me about the intrusion.
    Therefore she stays leashed, even in the home fields that we walk every day, until I know where the livestock happens to be grazing or the farm machinery working. She has a long leash so she can wander, that I can shorten at need to take control. When there are calves, we choose just another path.
    It only takes a bit of common sense and understanding to be able to share the fields. It shouldn’t be that hard…

    • jwebster2 September 21, 2019 at 3:44 pm Reply

      it shouldn’t be but it often is 😦
      Somebody pointed out to me that in this country we were the first in the world to go into the industrial revolution, so our population is the one that’s furthest from understanding the land and farming
      There are times it shows 😦

      • Sue Vincent September 21, 2019 at 3:54 pm

        Yet without the land, there would have been no industrial revolution..and we wouldn’t eat either. It is a daft situation.

      • jwebster2 September 21, 2019 at 4:03 pm

        Actually we had the ‘Athenian solution’
        Industry needed the workforce and stripped it away from agriculture by paying higher wages so agriculture largely faded, and the country survived by exporting manufactured goods and importing food.
        It ended badly for the Athenians at Aegospotami and it almost ended badly for us with German submarine blockades

      • Sue Vincent September 21, 2019 at 4:38 pm

        True, but even imported foodstuffs need land to grow in somewhere.
        It worries me how little younger people seem to know about how food is grown, whether animal or vegetable, and even less about how to choose it. the supermarkets have made it all too easy and necessary skills and knowledge are being lost every day.

      • jwebster2 September 21, 2019 at 4:42 pm

        you’d think it was a long term business plan. Keep them ignorant, keep them buying 😦

      • Sue Vincent September 21, 2019 at 6:16 pm

        Underhanded manipulation? I’d never dream of suggesting such a thing..😇

      • jwebster2 September 21, 2019 at 7:06 pm

        I’m sure you spend your dreaming time far more wisely 🙂

      • Sue Vincent September 21, 2019 at 7:15 pm

        I hope so… 😉

      • jwebster2 September 21, 2019 at 8:56 pm

        I’m glad of that 🙂

      • Sue Vincent September 21, 2019 at 9:17 pm

        🙂

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt September 21, 2019 at 3:55 pm Reply

    I didn’t realize we still had cows that are almost feral. One thinks of them as domestic animals, without thinking exactly what that means. Even though we know that not long ago, cows were capable of living on wide swaths of land, gathered only when it was time for branding, and marched long distances to get to market. Cowboy tales. Do you have cowboy tales?

    • jwebster2 September 21, 2019 at 4:11 pm Reply

      I downloaded plans for a cattle handling system from an American university and they still take into account the different between ‘ranch cattle’ and ‘farmed cattle’
      But in this country they did used to move cattle long distances.
      The tales of Rob Roy from Scotland remember him as a cattleman. Cattle were reared in the Highlands and were then puchased and walked down to Yorkshire to fatten
      We still have drove roads and even the remains of bronze age cattle handling systems but with us this faded mainly in the 18th century, because the distance between the farms and the cities was less. But the scale is very different, in the US, the Chisholm Trail was 520 miles which is about the same as the distance from Fort William in the Highlands of Scotland, down to London. We struggle to fit a big cattle trail into our country without going round in circles 🙂

  3. Stevie Turner September 22, 2019 at 5:32 pm Reply

    When we walk over the Tennyson Trail on the Isle of Wight there are always cows and sometimes a bull ahead of us on the path. I’m always very wary, but they seem quite passive and must be used to hikers going past. I’m not sure what type of cows they are… all I know is that they mind their own business!

    • jwebster2 September 22, 2019 at 6:48 pm Reply

      By and large cows are happy to do that 🙂

  4. patriciaruthsusan September 26, 2019 at 11:57 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    First, a description of belties and other types of cattle, especially in Cumbria. Next, a book on offer by Jim Webster about the farm stock and working dogs on his farm. A review by a satisfied reader is included.

    • jwebster2 September 26, 2019 at 7:48 pm Reply

      some of them are as cuddly as they look in the pictures 🙂

  5. patriciaruthsusan October 6, 2019 at 12:24 pm Reply

    Aww. 🙂 — Suzannr

  6. patriciaruthsusan October 6, 2019 at 12:25 pm Reply

    Heck. I misspelled my own name. I must be tired. 😀 — Suzanne

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