The New York Times attributed even older sacrificial importance to cattle, saying they appeared after pre-Roman Celtic druids attempted, through “a process of segregation and selective slaughter,” to design a version entirely. white 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 the herds of aurochs that once roamed widely British forests is appealing but flawed. “All modern European cattle were created as a result of the domestication of aurochs when humans began farming thousands of years ago,” explained Ellie Waddington, Crossley’s sister and coworker herd. “I wouldn’t describe the Chillingham cattle as more closely related to them than any other modern breed, but they do give us real insight into how the aurochs may have behaved. The herd structure, the psychology, the rituals of mating, etc. on – nowhere else can you see and study a truly natural herd structure. “
Unusually compared to dairy breeds, the Chillingham herd has a 50/50 gender split and produces young all year round. Competition between males is fierce, bloody and sometimes deadly; since they are wild animals, the keepers let nature take its course. “Eye injuries, broken ribs, puncture wounds – we don’t have any vet intervention at all,” Crossley said. “It’s not for everyone, but they are wild animals; they don’t want our help. “
The limit of human intervention is to leave hay for the animals during harsh winters and to bring them out of their misery if they are sick or injured beyond the point of healing. It’s also good that the cattle all look the same, so it’s impossible to identify individuals. “Since the only way to help them if they are in pain is to shoot them, it’s best not to speak by their first name,” Crossley said.
The reason for their homogeneity is centuries of inbreeding, to the point that cattle are essentially genetic clones. The detrimental effects of inbreeding are well known – numerous scientific studies have shown that it makes animal populations more prone to birth defects and infectious diseases than those that rely on a large gene pool. If you’ve ever seen a Habsburg jawbone staring at you from one of Europe’s great portrait rooms, you’ll know that’s not a good idea in humans, either.