White Park Cattle: A Truly Ancient Breed
White Park Cow and Calf – painted paper collage and gold leaf on panel 60cm x 76 cm
White cattle with coloured points have been recorded wherever we find cattle descended from the long-horned Hamitic cattle of Ancient Egypt. Hamitic cattle were dispersed throughout Europe and probably arrived in the British Isles around four thousand years ago. They may have come with the first Neolithic farmers who occupied the islands, or slightly later with the Bell Beaker people who moved into England a little after Stonehenge was constructed. In any case, the presence of white cattle in the British Isles goes back a long, long way.
In the time of the Celts (600 BCE) cattle meant wealth, and white cattle were especially prized for their unusual, other-worldly colouring. White cattle appear often in Celtic mythology. Finnbhennach, the white bull of Connacht, is the catalyst for the events that unfold in the Pre-Christian Irish prose-epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle-raid of Cooley, part of the Cúchulain Cycle). Elsewhere in the epic, herds of white cattle with dark ears belonging to the underworld Sidhe (faeries) are mentioned.
Roman invasions of Celtic Britain began in 55 BCE. Roman author Pliny the Elder recorded that the Druid priests of the Celts used special white bulls as sacrifices in their ceremonies.
Having made all due preparation for the sacrifice and a banquet beneath the trees, they bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloth. They then sacrifice the victims, offering up their prayers that God will render this gift of his auspicious to those to whom he has so granted it. (16.95) Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock and H. T. Riley. London: Henry Bohn, 1855.
The Romans eventually pushed the Celts to the outer fringes of western and northern England, and also to Ireland. And the fleeing Celts took their herds of white cattle with them. Although these ancient herds went extinct in Ireland, they remained common in Wales until the nineteenth century. As late as the thirteenth century in Wales, we can find documents which show white cattle used as currency to pay fines.
Medb, Warrior Queen of Connacht, the original owner of Finnbhennach, the white bull of Connacht, who left her herd because he did not wish to be owned by a mere woman. Illustration by J.C. Leyendecker. Public Domain. (Wikimediacommons)
The ancient white cattle of the Celts were the progenitors of the modern White Park breed – if a breed can be called modern when it is eight hundred years old. White Park herds were developed by the medieval practice of ‘emparking’. A license to empark was granted to wealthy nobles by the king to enable them to create private hunting parks for the hunting of game. The hunting parks were enclosed by high fences, banks, and ditches to prevent the game from getting out. In places where the white cattle remained, often living in a wild state, the bovines were ‘emparked’ along with deer, wild boars, and other wildlife.
The Forest Charter of 1225 by which Henry III granted English nobles the right to empark land.
White Park cattle remained in game parks and enclosed forests for centuries. The cattle were hunted initially, but were later domesticated and used for beef and milk and as oxen. A few of these emparked herds, namely the Cadzow herd of Scotland and Dynevor herd in Wales, still exist today. As a result of their ancient lineage and the lack of modern ‘improvement’ in their bloodlines, White Parks are genetically distinct from nearly all other breeds of cattle.
A wild White Park Bull of the Chartley herd in Staffordshire.
The herd was in existence continuously until 1905, when it was dispersed. It has since been re-established.
White Parks are now most valued for their high quality beef, and their genetic ‘purity’ makes them an excellent choice for crossing with modern beef breeds as they instil considerable hybrid vigour into their calves. White Parks are a medium sized breed with long backs. They are almost always white, although there is a recessive gene for black which occasionally appears. They have dark-ringed eyes, dark ears, horn tips, feet, and udders- their ‘points’ – which are usually black, but they can sometimes be dark red. Cows weigh around 600kg and bulls 900kg. The cows are excellent mothers with a strong protective instinct. White Park cattle can be farmed intensively, but do best when allowed to forage. They are thrifty cattle, and can convert poor forage into excellent meat.
Winnie the White Park calf at Havelock Fair, Havelock, QC, 2017.
The British government recognized the importance of maintaining such an ancient breed. In 1938, possibly because war with Germany seemed increasingly likely, a small number of cattle from the Cadzow herd were shipped to Canada where they were established at the Riverdale Zoo in Toronto. Their offspring were sold; some were sent to other zoos in the United States, some to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for research, and others were sent to a ranch in Texas. Although the breed has rebounded somewhat in Britain, it remains on the watch list. The breed remains extremely rare in North America. The only herd to be found in Canada is on the Stoddart Family Farm in, appropriately enough, Little Britain, Ontario.
Sources: Miranda Green, Symbol & Image in Celtic Religious Art, Routledge, 1992; Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, Routledge, 1998; Janet Vorwald Dohner, Historic and Endangered livestock and Poultry Breeds, Yale University Press, 2001; Cuchulain of Muirthemne translated by Lady Augusta Gregory as excerpted in Dr. R. Curran, Celtic Lore and Legend, Bookmart Press; Lady Augusta Gregory, THE WAR FOR THE BULL OF CUAILGNE, 1902 (www.sacred-texts.com); “White Park Cattle: Key Characteristics”, Rare Breeds Survival Trust, (www.rbst.org.uk); “History of the Breed” by Lawrence Alderson, The White Park Cattle Society (www.whiteparkcattlesociety.ltd.uk); “Ancient-genome Study finds Bronze Age ‘Beaker culture’ invaded Britain”, Ewen Calloway, Nature (Nature news online), 17 May, 2017