Currently numbering around 100 this is the world’s only completely wild herd of cattle having been undomesticated for 700-800 years, the only such herd in the world.
Not your average tourist attraction, the mysterious wild beasts of Chillingham provide a unique, inspiring and faith-restoring insight into the survival of a species without human intervention.
It is not known exactly when, how or why they appeared in the area and it is only a series of chance events that resulted in them remaining wild; theories include keeping them ‘undomesticated’ but secure for a better hunting experience or to help protect as well as feed the castle?
They are rarer and more endangered than the Giant Panda!
In October 2017 I took a guided walk as part of an unforgettable family day out on the historic Chillingham estate, between Berwick and Alnwick in Northumberland, England.
Read how to make the most of a combined visit including the fascinating haunted castle in my article Chillingham Castle and Wild Cattle.
Wild Cattle Guided Tour
We planned our visit around a guided walking tour, the only way to see the native cattle close-up. Check out tour times on the Chillingham Wild Cattle Association’s website HERE. It’s not far but is well worth the effort.
From the car park it’s a 10-15 minute walk across fields to the visitor centre, an old stone hemmel (a long, open-fronted feeding barn) with information boards and a selection of old bones and skulls to instill a sense of unease into any junior visitors!
Sturdy shoes are a must and be prepared to pass through a couple of disinfectant trays to prevent disease.
Ellie Crossley is Chillingham Wild Cattle Association’s very first female warden. Her knowledge and understanding of the cattle is extraordinary, her talk both educational and fun for all the family.
Ellie takes you as close as is safely possible to the herd, ruled by one dominant bull and naturally divided into 3 or 4 smaller groups which generally stick to their own areas in the 360 acre park. We were able to get close to two of these groups.
Humans Keep Out
The land roamed and grazed by the formidable cattle is not managed by humans, evidencing a rougher, denser, more rugged habitat than the surrounding countryside.
The animals are never touched by humans, they receive no veterinary treatment and the only human assistance they receive is hay during severe snow as the herd were decimated decades ago during a bad winter.
The bulls fight over territory, to the death if necessary, and despite centuries of intense in-breeding they have somehow maintained an incredibly resilient, healthy gene pool. Scientifically staggering.
Particularly delightful and evocative is the deep, mellow lowing of the bulls as they communicate with each other. These are bulls subdued by the alpha but who, for reasons unknown, remain in a mini ‘men’s club’ rather than joining one of the groups. I haven’t heard this depth of sound in domesticated cattle. It was captivating.
I came away thoroughly heartened by the conservation and preservation efforts maintained by Chillingham Wild Cattle Association and by the complete wildness and hence utter ‘naturalness’ of these animals. I wish all cattle could be as unique and as genetically pure.
I could write so much more – you need to experience it for yourself.
We headed back to explore the castle feeling uplifted by the unique experience.
In Alistair Moffat’s historical book The Borders, he proposes these statuesque white cattle are descendants of the ancient Auroch (of which there is a prehistoric skull on a stairwell in Chillingham Castle).
Having now seen them I would love to think so too!
The cows’ graceful horns are reminiscent of the head-dress of the ancient Egyptian goddess Hathor. Perhaps they were used by Romans following the cult of Mithras? The Romans probably sacrificed and ate the animals too. Whatever their history, these animals are fascinating and intriguing.
Fascinating Facts About Chillingham Wild Cattle
- There is no ‘mating season’, cattle mate all year round
- Only single calves are born, Ellie has never seen twins born within the herd
- Without human intervention the cows as well as the bulls keep their horns
- The herd have smaller hind quarters than our domesticated cattle, since they are in their natural state and not bred for meat
- Ask Ellie what happens if the whole herd is wiped out by disease or illness..
- Eva Ibbotson’s book The Beasts of Clawstone Castle is inspired by the Chillingham herd (we love Ibbotson so this is definitely on the Christmas list)
How to combine a visit to the cattle AND castle? Read Chillingham Castle and Wild Cattle.
I hope you enjoy your time at Chillingham as much as we did.